Never Ending Story – Ilios review

Oh man, The Iliad. It brings back weird memories for me, of schooldays when I thought I was clever because I was reading Homer and listening to The Smiths when everyone else was outside playing football and actually having fun with other people. Eh, whatever, I was having fun in my own, lonesome way. Plus I liked hanging out in the library, because occasionally folks would stumble in and we could play RPGs. Yay for the more antisocial members of my school!
However annoying a teen I may have been, the story of The Iliad is still one that I enjoy. The battles, the heroes and villains, the siege of Troy… it remains an incredible tale, even moreso when paired with The Odyssey. Of course, many game designers have drawn inspiration from these legendary tales, the latest of which was developed by Eliot Hochberg; his new creation that recently funded over on Kickstarter is called Ilios, and it’s really rather splendid. One thing though – if you’re looking at a game that will evoke stories of high adventure and embittered gods, this may not entirely be the one for you. That’s not to say that Ilios is bad – not at all, it’s actually excellent – but it’s abstract in the extreme, almost to the point of themeless.
That’s not a problem though – abstracts are much loved by a lot of gamers; look at the GIPF series, for example, and the company responsible for Ilios are also the folks behind another game I really enjoyed, Cartography, so there’s certainly a track record for quality there. Like most games in the abstract genre, Ilios attempts to capture the classic concept of ‘moments to learn, but a lifetime to master’, but does it achieve this lofty goal? Well, first things first – how does it play?
Pretty straightforward, as it turns out. A grid of squares is your battlefield – my prototype copy came with a 7×7 sheet, but the rulebook suggests a 6×6 set-up, or 4×4 for a quicker game. Between two and four people can play, each one represented by an army of coloured discs that will track your plays as well as what areas of the board you currently control. The only other components in the game are a selection of thirty-five wooden Warrior Tiles (of which there are five different types for use during standard play) and one further set of four Iron Weapon tiles that are used to start the proceedings. Each player takes one and placed them on the board, determining where future tiles can be placed for at least the first round…
Each turn sees players choosing from one of three tiles in their hand, which is then placed on one of the empty squares on the grid. The only rules regarding placement is that at least one of the arrows on a tile must be pointing towards a square occupied by an opponent or one of those Iron Weapon tiles that begin the game. Once a tile is in play, anything its arrows point to are ‘attacked’ – in other words, you replace the current coloured disc on enemy tiles with one of your own. You then mark the tile you’ve just played with a disc of your own and, should any tiles now be completely surrounded by a combination of discs, tiles, or the board edge, you get to claim it for yourself (leaving your disc behind to show your feat of strength!), scoring the points shown at the end of the game.
IMG_0483

Placing this ‘1’ tile means you get to seize the 10-point Iron Weapons token – vital if you’re going to crush your enemies before you!

And so it continues – place a tile, switch out coloured discs, occasionally claim a tile for points, then draw back to three tiles – until there are no open squares left on the board. Points are tallied and the highest scorer wins… and that’s very much it, so it definitely satisfies the quick learning time criteria.
As for the ‘lifetime to master’ bit? Well, the games I’ve played of Ilios have been challenging and are often very close, but I get the feeling that if I were to be facing off against someone who had a lot more experience I’d be getting destroyed on a regular basis. While it doesn’t feel like the game suffers from the problem of being solvable (which is an issue some abstract titles can suffer from), greater experience will most certainly pay off as you learn little strategies that can give you an edge in play. The fact that you can also play with between two and four people as well as switch up the size of the board means that there is plenty of variance in Ilios – a smaller board with a larger amount of players leads to an incredibly cut-throat game, while more space means there’s more room to breath and consider your options. It’s a refreshing approach to abstract gaming, and each different game set-up does indeed manage to feel a little different. Sure, the general premise is always going to be the same, but the mix of player count and board size does keep things fresh.
Now, with all that said, I know in my heart that I not everyone will get into Ilios. While yes, I enjoyed playing Ilios, a large amount of gamers out there who will immediately turn it down simply because it’s an abstract affair. However, I encourage you to keep an open mind and give this rather charming game a shot – after all, pretty much every game deserves to be played (unless you’re talking about that bloody awful Doctor Who Trivia Game we reviewed a couple of years back). With even a four-player game taking around twenty minutes, it’s a quick brain-burner that the right group will really enjoy – just make sure that you’re a part of it!
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