By Doug Mann, April 2016
According to Homer, Odysseus took ten years to get home from the Trojan War. Though playing all the elements of Matagot’s Cyclades series of games and expansions won’t take you that long, it’s sufficiently confusing to require a steady hand on the tiller to navigate one’s way through all its complexities.
In this article I’ll outline the components and core rules of each of these elements, offering bouquets or brickbats to each according to their merits. Instead following the chronological order in which they were published, I’ll follow the logical order in which the smart gamer will want to buy them: Cyclades, Titans, Hades, and then the minor add-ons.
1. The Trojan Horse: CYCLADES
In 2009 Matagot published the core game in the system, Cyclades. It’s distributed by Asmodee in North America. Designed by Bruno Cathala and Ludovic Maublanc, Cyclades centers on an abstract version of the Cyclades archipelago, where each player controls one of five ancient Greek city states who make offerings to the gods in order to conquer islands, build fortresses, ports, temples and universities, and build up their economy in order to construct two metropolises.
Thus Cyclades is in part a worker-placement game, in part a wargame; in part diplomatic manoeuvring, in part a paean to Greek polytheism.
Like all the games in their XL line (e.g. Utopia and Kemet), Matagot has pulled out the stops to provide us with great board game art, both in the two-dimensional cardboard components provided – the reversible maps, “god board,” god tiles, cards, and money counters – along with in the plastic miniatures of troops, ships, and monsters.
You get two double-sided maps with “thin” and “thick” selections of sea and island circles that can be combined in four distinct ways for 2, 3, 4 or 5-player games. Most of the map is water, so sea power is key. You also get five large monster miniatures – the centaur Chiron, the Cyclops Polyphemus, the Minotaur, Medusa, and the Kraken – modelled in hard marble-coloured plastic, along with five sets of troops and ships, each in their own colour and individual sculpts in malleable, glossy plastic.
The goal of the game is to control two metropolises. You can do this by combining four distinct types of buildings (forts, ports, temples and universities), collecting four Philosopher cards, or stealing someone else’s metropolis.
Players start with two troops, two ships, and two isles.
In the opening phase of each turn players do three things. First, a new card is drawn from the beautifully illustrated Mythological Creature deck, moving old cards down a track on the god board from a cost of 4, 3 then 2 gold. These represent various creatures such as Pegasus, a Siren, a giant, a griffin and a sphinx that you can buy along with a god to give you a one-turn special power.
Then large tiles representing the four main gods in the game – Zeus, Ares, Poseidon and Athena – are randomly placed on the god board (a separate board you lay alongside the map) on top of Apollo, whose last position is fixed. There are four spots in a full 5-player game; these spots are reduced for 2, 3 or 4 players (some gods take a holiday, but come back next turn).
Finally, players collect their income in “GPs” (which I’ll call gold from now on) based on how many cornucopia symbols they control on the map. Unlike their other possessions, their gold is hidden behind beautifully illustrated cardboard screens which have on their reverse side densely packed summaries of all the iconography in the game (which most players promptly ignore after trying to decipher them).
In the offering phase each player in turn bids one or more gold for the favours of one of these gods. Other players can outbid them – if they do, then the first player must bid on a new god. This is when the game really shines, as players jockey for position based on their future plans and how much gold they can afford to pay. If you bid too much, you won’t have any money left over to buy troops, ships or buildings.
The god you wind up with determines what you can do during the action phase:
- Zeus gives you a Priest card, which gives you a discount of 1 gold on future god bids (you always have to pay at least 1 gold). You can buy a second Priest for 4 gold. Zeus also lets you build a temple for 2 gold, which gives you 1 off the cost of mythological creature cards. Finally, he also gives you the right to pay 1 gold to replace a current creature card with a new one.
- Ares is the god of war: he gives you 1 free troop and the right to buy 3 more. He also gives you the right to buy a fortress for 2 gold (giving you +1 to isle defense rolls). With Ares, you can move a group of troops on the same island for 1 gold each move – this includes using friendly ships to transport troops across adjacent sea zones.
- Poseidon is the god of the sea: he mirrors Ares in giving you 1 free fleet, the right to buy up to 3 more, and the ability to buy a port for 2 gold (giving you +1 to adjoining sea battles). He also gives you the ability to move a group of fleets in the same zone up to 3 sea zones.
- Athena is the goddess of wisdom: she gives you one free philosopher and the chance to build a second for 4 gold. If you get Athena two turns in a row, you could in theory spend 8 gold to buy 4 philosophers, which are automatically converted into a metropolis: you’re half way to winning the standard game. You can also build a university for 2 gold: this has no special power, other than emanating the faint shimmer of knowledge from its walls.
- Apollo is the consolation prize: he gives you a turn off from the hustle and bustle of city-state squabbling. He’s free, and gives the first player who picks him (several players can choose him) a new cornucopia, and everyone 1 gold. If you’re down to one isle, he gives you 4 gold instead. So Apollo is a catch-up mechanism for players who have been crushed by an enemy.
Someone who only knows the original game will wonder “hey, where are the other seven Olympian deities? Where are Hermes and Aphrodite?” The answer is given by Hades.
A note on strategy here: unlike in Titans, in Cyclades you need to set up the old Poseidon-Ares two-step to conquer an isle (move a fleet, then move troops), which might be difficult if others know you’re trying to do it. So using Athena to buy philosophers becomes a much more viable winning strategy. If the two-step is hard for you, it’s probably hard for everyone else too, so you can exist in splendid isolation on most isles.
The Mythological Creatures can be bought by all the gods but Apollo. Their cost is determined by the position on the creature track, ranging from 2-4 gold (-1 for each temple you control). Their powers also vary greatly: the Griffon can steal half of another player’s gold, the Siren can steal a ship, while Pegasus can fly your troops across the board. This latter power should be house-ruled as a prohibited way of winning the game: in theory you could pick up a large army and fly across the map with your super-horse to take poorly defended metropolis from a poorly defended player.
In addition to the twelve creatures represented only by cards are five who have their own miniatures. They work in the same way as the cards-only creatures, disappearing after one turn like stars on a cheesy Hollywood chat show. The Kraken is by far the most powerful: it destroys all fleets in one sea zone, and can be moved by paying 1 gold per zone. The rest are underpowered, especially Chiron, whose only function is to protect against Pegasus, Giants and Harpies. Since none of these might be in play, he could be literally useless.
This is one weakness of Cyclades. The idea of including mythological monsters is great, but they disappear after one turn. I’ve tried to solve this problem with regards to the monster miniatures in my article Powering Up the Monsters in Cyclades. As for the rest, the Priestess cards in the Hades expansion allow players to pay to keep a monster in play. A third option is to house rule a simple system where you can keep a monster for an extra turn by paying either a Priest card or gold on a scale starting at 2 and increasing 1 per turn (but don’t allow this for the Kraken: it’s dangerous enough as it is).
The other disappointment here is that many of the card-only monsters call out for their own miniatures: the Sphinx, Pegasus, the Griffon and the Siren at minimum.
If you enter an isle with your troops or a sea zone with your fleets, there’s a battle. The mechanics of this are simple: add up your troops/ships, add in fortresss or port bonuses, and then roll one reduced-luck die (with faces of 0-1-1-2-2-3): the highest total wins. The loser loses one troop/fleet, and has the option to retreat. If there’s a tie, both players lose a unit. If the defender chooses to stay, players roll for round two of the battle. And so on.
Players can leave an isle empty but still control it: they can place a control marker on it. A nice balancing rule in Cyclades is the one which protects players with only one isle from being eliminated: you can’t attack such a player unless you can prove that by doing so you can win the game. If you finish a turn with two metropolises, you win.
The brilliance of Cylades comes from integrating its several disparate elements without getting bogged down by rules (the rules booklet is only eight pages, including two pages of setup diagrams). First, the theme of Greek mythology comes through strongly in what is mechanically a Eurogame-Ameritrash hybrid. This is aided by second pillar of the game’s brilliance: the map and board art and the miniature sculpts, which makes you feel as though you’re really moving triremes and hoplites across the Greek islands as you pray to Ares and Poseidon and avoid perils like Medusa’s snaky coiffure and the Kraken’s bloody maw. The third pillar is the strong bidding mechanic tied to the gold shortages created by the topography of the map and overly hubristic leaders. In Cyclades, as Mr. Jagger once put it, you can’t always get what you want. Though with enough gold and careful bidding, you might get what you need.
In short, Cyclades is the Trojan Horse that gets you into the system nicely. It’s got its flaws, notably under-powered and evanescent monsters. But when you voyage further into the system to visit the nymph Calypso, you’ll be very pleased with her boon: Cyclades Titans.
Ratings out of 6 for the basic game:
- Complexity: 3 Moderate
- Strategy: 5 Hot
- Luck: 3 Moderate
- Aesthetics: 6 Excellent
The Three Continua
- Player Interaction: 6 Blazing (the bidding mechanic clinches this)
- Level of Conflict: 4 Warm (muted when you get Zeus, Athena or Apollo)
- Depth of Theme: 5 Hot (needs more gods and some heroes)
- Overall: 5.2 Very Good
2. Visiting Calypso: The TITANS Expansion
In 2014 Matagot released its second major expansion, Cyclades Titans, from the same design team. This is more of a substantial re-imagining of the game than a simple series of tweaks. It’s also the system’s crowning achievement, its Empire Strikes Back to the base game’s Star Wars: A New Hope. It turns the game’s volume up to 11.
The basic mechanics of the game are the same: collecting resources, bidding for gods, and then using their powers to build buildings and move pieces on the map. There are three major and three lesser additions to the core game that really make it shine. First, the major additions:
- There is a new two-sided non-modular map. On one side is a single large multi-territory island surrounded by two smaller islands and many sea zones, with cornucopia sprinkled liberally across the board (with five on the small islands and seven on the sea zones). This is used in the 3- or 4-player variants. On the back is a map with two large islands, once against surrounded by two small fertile islands and sea zones that are home to a total of 19 cornucopia between them. The four-page rulebook redefines the “isles” of the base game as “territories,” so players can now march to victory without the aid of the sea god.
- To make things even more exciting, enter Kronos and his Titans. The new god board can now handle six gods. Kronos is randomly placed and bid for like the other mobile gods: he gives you one free building from one of the god tiles above him on the god board, along with the opportunity to buy a Titan for 2 gold. If Kronos is at the top of the board, he gives you a Titan instead of a building, so for 2 gold you get two Titans. The Titans are like portable command centers: they only count as 1 troop in battle, but can be moved regardless of what god you bid on (except Apollo). One Titan move costs 1 gold, 2 costs 2, 3 costs 3, etc. One might also add that the Titan pieces, coming in six colours and three individual sculpts, tower over the relatively tiny troop miniatures.
- The game can now be played by up to six players. With three or five, it’s still a competitive game. With four players, you can choose to play it as a team game; with six players, you must. Teams need three metropolises total to win. In my view the Cyclades-Titans six-player team game is the apex of the system, its Parthenon.
There are three more new elements in Titans that aren’t game changers like those above:
- Free Positioning: Players now get 7 gold before the game to bid on the gods in the standard manner in a special placement phase, getting a free troop, fleet, Titan, Priest, Philosopher or cornucopia, depending on the god chosen. They also get for free a building associated with that god (except for Apollo), and use the order of this pre-game god board to set up their troops on two adjacent territories and their fleets on two adjacent sea zones. Before all of this, one of each type of building is randomly placed on set territories on the map. These new rules get the game off to a roaring start, since up to nine buildings may already be in place on the first turn.
- Divine Artefacts: These are represented on cards mixed into the Mythological Creatures deck along with by white marble columns that you can place on the board and move with your troops. The Winged Sandals allow you to fly across an island, Zeus’ Lightning to siphon a gold from a player who outbids you, the Large Cornucopia to double the gold produced in that territory, the Caduceus to heal a dead soldier, and the Cap of Invisibility to move through enemy troops and fleets. These could be a game changer since possession of all five give you and immediate victory – but this is very hard to do, even in the team game, with others watching. They can change the game’s military strategy considerably: for instance, the sandals allow you to paradrop troops deep into enemy territory.
- Special Metropolises: Though largely harmless, these are the only dispensable part of this expansion. There are five cards for the five types of metropolises: military, religious, cultural, commercial and seaside. Each gives a bonus according to its theme e.g. the religious one gives you a discount of 2 gold off creature buys, the commercial 2 extra gold during the revenues phase. You randomly choose two per game, with the first two metropolis builders getting dibs on them.
With the new map the value of sea-power and thus of Poseidon are decreased, since most of the time you’ll be fighting battles on a single island. However, the sea god still has a strong economic function: on the big map, there are 14 floating cornucopias to go fishing for. It’s actually easier to create a naval empire in Titans if other players fixate on Ares and Kronos. The three-cornucopia isle in the strait between the two major islands is sure to be a bone of contention, the game’s Alsace-Lorraine.
Titans has just a tad more tension associated with the bidding round, since Kronos is now in play, and those Titans and free buildings are awfully tasty. The major change to the feel of the game, however, is brought by the Titans themselves, who can always move as long as you have some cash in hand, bringing along any regular troops in their territory. Everyone now has to look over their shoulders as they bid for an Athena-style victory or decide to go fishing with Poseidon – you can’t just turtle on a couple of isles and buy a victory.
The team play nicely ties all the new elements together, especially with six players playing on the big two-island map. It forces either a one-two player split on each island, or for each team of three to dominate one island each. This makes for some tough choices. Having six different gods to chose between, some players will inevitably play an aggressive Ares-Kronos strategy, grabbing whatever land they can, with others choosing a more economic Athena-Apollo-Poseidon one. A good team requires at least one player playing on each side of this fence. A third option is to carefully collect all five divine artefacts, fighting just enough to keep the other team off balance.
There’s another advantage of team play: now an individual player who has been successfully attacked can’t feel picked on, as his or her mates should be ready to serve up the cold dish of revenge to their mutual enemies.
In summary, team Titans is an excellent multi-faceted reboot of Cyclades that increases the level of conflict without adding a ton of complexity, though softening that conflict in the team variant with back-slapping “we happy few” camaraderie.
But where are those missing gods? More durable creatures? Homer’s heroes? We’ll have to journey to the underworld to find them.
Ratings out of 6 for Titans:
- Complexity: 4 Warm
- Strategy: 5 Hot
- Luck: 3 Moderate
- Aesthetics: 6 Excellent
The Three Continua
- Player Interaction: 6 Blazing
- Level of Conflict: 5 Hot (it’s not just a war game)
- Depth of Theme: 5 Hot (still a few mythical things missing)
- Overall: 5.5 Very Good+ (competitive game), 6 Excellent (team game)
3. Cerberus Barks – Should We Stay Away? The HADES Expansion
Published in 2011, Hades is first expansion to the core game. It’s very different from Titans: it doesn’t come with a map or reboot the game, but provides a series of four rules modules (only three of which have pieces and cards associated with them). One or more of these can be “plugged into” imaginary slots in the core game to expand its coverage of Greek mythology while at the same time upping its complexity.
In this sense, it’s a potpourri of new rules, miniatures, cards and tiles which players can pick and choose between as they see fit.
Hades makes use of all the main rules in the core game. Here are the modules it adds:
- #1. Pre-Game Free Placement: This is simply the free positioning rules replicated in Titans, though without the bonus starting buildings (remember, Hades was designed for the sparser map of the original game). Both versions work well with the maps they were designed for, so no further comment is needed.
- #2. Hades and his Undead: The lord of the underworld arrives periodically with an army of up to 5 troops and a navy of up to 5 fleets. He is also provided with his own standard-sized god tile, a grey column, and a Necropolis tile.
- #3. Heroes and New Creatures: Six heroes enter the fray: Achilles, Hector, Odysseus, Perseus, Midas and Penthesilea the Amazon. From the nether regions come Cererbus (who has his own sculpted miniature), Charon, Empusa and the Furies (they have cards only).
- #4. Divine Favours: This module adds eight “minor” gods missing from the core game. Hera, Aphrodite, Artemis, Demeter and Hestia give their controller a Priestess card and a unique Divine Favour, while Hermes, Dionysus and Hephaestus give a Favour and a Magic Item card (there are ten of these).
Skipping the free placement rules, I’ll review these in the order I think they should be added to the Cyclades-Titans combined game.
 First, there’s no problem adding the new god Hades and his army of the undead. His tile has a threat track on which you roll one die during each opening phase: when it hits 9, his tile replaces the lowest of the other gods on the god board. If you control him, you get a free troop OR fleet, and can buy up to four more troops or fleets, both of which can be mixed with your own units. Hades is basically Ares and Poseidon combined: you can pay 1 gold to move either his troops or fleets. The trick is that after one turn, the undead all go back to Hades! So you might wind up paying a lot of gold for nothing.
In addition, if you control Hades you can build a Necropolis for 2 gold. If you do, each time a troop or fleet dies, you add 1 gold to it. Whoever controls the Necropolis during the next income phase gets this gold.
Some might think that Hades’ presence unbalances the game. I haven’t found this to be a problem: since everyone is freaked out when he arrives, they tend to push up the bidding for his favours, thus exhausting their gold supply. He is good for one or two solid attacks.
 Second, if Hades is already in the game, have no fear in adding his friends Cererbus, Charon, Empusa and the Furies. These denizens of the underworld make thematic sense, and only add complexity when a player has to look up their powers for the first time. In my view, combining Cyclades, Titans, and these two elements of Hades provide a rich, playable game that won’t get too bogged down with rule lawyering.
 Third, and I think this is more of a judgement call, add Module #4 Divine Favours if you want the full Olympian pantheon on the board. This module adds eight minor gods to the mix: each turn one is randomly chosen and placed alongside the lowest core god’s tile (not counting Apollo) on the god board as a bonus tile. So you might get Zeus and Hera with the same bid.
If you get this last core god, you also get the unique favour offered by the minor god along with either a Priestess card or a Magic Item. The Priestess cards, which come with the minor goddesses, are the best part of this module: you can spend one of these to keep either a hero or monster miniature on the map for one more turn. Some of the unique powers are thematic, some not so much: Aphrodite allows you to double troop numbers for 2 gold, Dionysus can build a theatre (a wild card building) for the same cost, while Demeter gives you a bonus gold for each isle/territory you control. This last bonus can be hefty in Titans, though for the most part, the minor gods’ powers integrate well.
The trio of minor male gods give you one of ten Magic Items cards such as Apollo’s Arrows, Poseidon’s Trident or Pandora’s Box. Some of these seem like variations on themes already seen in the Mythological Creatures deck, though they are largely thematic. You can hold onto an item for one turn.
One problem with the Divine Favours and Magic Items in this module is that if you add them to the Heroes and Creatures module, Hades introduces 28 new special powers to the Cyclades system, not counting Hades, his Necropolis, and Priestess cards. That’s 31 new rule blurbs to research during the game.
In contrast, Cyclades has 5 gods, 17 creatures, 5 buildings and 2 card types one has to know, for a total of 29 total blurbs – though everything but the creature powers become intuitive after a single game. Titans adds 1 god, 6 buildings, and 5 artifacts to the mix, for a total of 12 new blurbs (with the powers of the 3 unused special metropolises being of no concern). So Cyclades-Titans has a total of 38 unique game elements with special rules in play in any one game; Hades adds all by itself another 31 new elements with special rules.
So if you want to add the minor gods and their favours and items, make sure you have a good reference card printed off from Board Game Geek. They slow down what is otherwise a sleek game system. Yet the Priestess cards are a good fix for the problem of the disappearing monster miniatures from the base game. If you don’t want more complexity, simply place a Priestess card on the last god on the god board as a bonus and ignore the rest of this module. But if you love the theme of Greek mythology, add the minor gods.
 Lastly, the Heroes from Module #3 don’t integrate well into Titans and should not be added in their original form. These are recruited from the Mythological Creatures deck, and can be kept around in future turns at a cost of either 2 gold or a Priestess card.
They each have a military power (Achilles counts as two troops, Midas can pay to re-roll battle dice) and a sacrificial power (you remove their piece from the board to gain this). The idea of including these heroes makes a lot of thematic sense, enriching the game’s mythos, although Penthesilia is the Pete Best of the band. Their miniatures are nice to look at.
But their sacrificial powers are just too great: Achilles can be sacrificed to build a metropolis if you have four isles/territories (you can get these in one move in Titans); Perseus can move troops to any other isle/territory not protected by another hero (he’s a super-Pegasus); Penthesilia can build a metropolis on a secret Amazon island that can’t be attacked; while Midas can just buy a metropolis with 15 gold. You could in theory win a game with just a couple of hero sacrifices, and not much else.
Solution: allow the heroes in the game, but strip them of their sacrificial powers. Without these, the heros are a nice addition, and considerably simpler than the minor gods with all their special powers and Magic Items.
 With Hades we come to the end of our Odyssey through the main elements of the Cyclades system. If you like both the core game and Titans, Hades is a worthy though non-essential addition to your collection. My recommendation, if you have 4+ players, is to use all of Cyclades and Titans, then add Hades and his undead, the four new creatures, the Priestess cards and maybe the stripped-down heroes from the Hades expansion. If players are comfortable with the system and love Greek myths, add in the minor gods also. If they want to emphasize playability, just add Hades and his minions and the four new creatures.
To start, I’ll rate each module separately, out of 6:
- #2 Hades and his Undead: 5.5 Very Good+
- #3 Heroes: 3 Fair (as written), 4.5 Good+ (if you strip them of their sacrificial powers)
- #3 New Creatures: 5 Very Good (though hardly necessary)
- #4 Minor Gods/Divine Favours/Magic Items: 4.5 Good+
- #4 Priestess Cards (by themselves): 6 Excellent (a much needed fix)
Here are my ratings for Cyclades-Titans with all of Hades added / then with “Hades-light” added (Hades and his undead, the four new creatures and the Priestess cards). Hades-light emphasizes playability, whereas full Hades adds complexity and theme.
- Complexity: 5 Hot / 4 Warm (adding all of Hades ups this considerably)
- Strategy: 5 Hot (it’s a brain burner either way)
- Luck: 3.5/3 Moderate (a bit higher with all those minor gods added)
- Aesthetics: 6 Excellent (the art is top flight once again)
The Three Continua
- Player Interaction: 5 Hot /6 Blazing (checking the rules constantly reduces player interaction in full Hades a bit)
- Level of Conflict: 5 Hot (it slows down the game so reduces this a bit)
- Depth of Theme: 6 Blazing /5 Hot (using all of Hades does fill in the “missing” gods and heroes)
- Overall Rating for the Hades expansion: 4.7 Good+
4. Avoiding the Sirens: The C3K CROSSOVER and Other Minor Add-Ons
As the friendly shores of Ithaca beckon us home, we still have a few other minor expansions to review before finishing our Odyssey through the Cyclades system. Like the heroes module in Hades, these add-ons are like Sirens for the less-than-wealthy who like their games playable: they’re hard to resist, but of little navigational aid.
 The C3K Creatures Crossover Mini-Expansion (2013) attempts to integrate the monster miniatures from Cyclades into Kemet and vice versa. It costs about $15 in Canada, but consists of only six power tiles (for Kemet), seven cards (for Cyclades), and a thin rules booklet. With it you can use the scarab beetle, scorpion, mummy, sphinx, snake, elephant and Phoenix from Kemet in Cyclades as troops with special attack powers. Leaving aside the small addition to the complexity of the game the module adds, the addition of these Egyptian monsters to the glory that was Greece is wildly anti-thematic on the level of Hollywood scripts re-written by committees of hacks and overly-protective producers. And for the same price you can get a full card game like Star Realms. My rating: 2/6.
 In 2011 Matagot gave away two freebees. First was a creature card for the Manticore, which eliminates heroes, given away in Plato magazine. Second was the more substantial Hecate add-on, an Essen freebee that can be bought on the Matagot web site for 5 Euros plus 8 Euros for shipping (it also comes with the Manticore card). It includes the Hecate minor god tile, two plastic columns, and six colour-coded cloth bags for your plastic pieces. Hecate has the interesting power of being able to dig an underground tunnel between two territories. For a brief time in the summer of 2016, the Hecate add-on could also be bought with six small silk bags for your armies and navies from the Board Game Geek store. My rating: 4/6 (5 if the shipping were cheaper).
 Matagot promises a new mini-expansion called Monuments for 2016. This will contain ten monuments and their associated cards, presumably each with their own special power. On aesthetics alone it should rate a 6.
This completes our ludic Odyssey through Cyclades and its expansions. I hope Penelope has made lunch, I’m hungry!