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Posted on Sep 22, 2022 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

An Ancient Cold War Goes Hot in Plague Island Games “Sparta!”

An Ancient Cold War Goes Hot in Plague Island Games “Sparta!”

Ray Garbee

Sparta! Publisher: Plague Island Games. Designer: Kris Van Beurden. Price $59.00 – 89.00 on kickstarter.

This is Sparta! That classic line from Frank Miller’s 1998 graphic novels, still resonate. Sparta was a military superpower in its day, fielding a formidable army under capable leaders. But part of what fuels our continuing interest in Sparta were their opponents – Athens and Thebes. Plague Island Games is working to bring these conflicts to the table with Sparta! Designed by Kris Van Beurden and with development support by Stuart Tonge.

Plague Island Games provided us with a demo/prototype copy of the game. While it’s not quite the finished production version, it’s really close to it. By way of comparison, Plague Island did the same thing with their first game 2 Minutes to Midnight, and the differences between that prototype and the final game were very minimal, so I expect the finished version of Sparta to be very similar to this prototype.

The game board for Sparta!

Sparta! Is a two-player game in which players engage in the overarching struggles of either the Peloponnesian War or the later Theban war. It plays like an ancient version of a superpower Cold War gone hot, with each side engaged in diplomatic efforts to bring territories and allies into their own alliance, or convince them to stay neutral.

But diplomacy is but one tool of the superpower. While one hand offers the olive branch of peace, the other grips the spear of war. Instead of sending a diplomatic overture, you can send soldiers or ships against your neighbors either raiding their lands or laying siege to a location to subdue it by force. You best hope for a quick siege, or you opponents’ armies may arrive in an attempt to drive you away. 

In Sparta!, you get two great wars in one game as the included scenarios cover the Peloponnesian War or the later Theban war. While Sparta stays basically Sparta, the game differentiates the abilities of Athens and the Thebes.

I won’t bore you with a detailed unboxing. You can surf on over to the kickstarter page and get a great sense of the components. I will say that the components feel first rate, with a mounted mapboard, large, durable counters and tokens, big 3-d pieces representing your armies and fleets and nicely rendered cards for the event decks and battle card decks.

The figures for the leaders capture a sense of dynamic action and classical sculpture.

Game play is in a form of the classic ‘I go – you go’ model. At the start of the turn, players check the status of the alliances, gaining any newly aligned units and wealth while removing troops from states that are no longer in your coalition. You’ll check on relative army and fleet strengths, investing in naval forces or returning troops to play.  Each player is dealt a hand of action cards which will be used in the action rounds of the current game turn.

All set up and ready for play!

At first, we found the game turn a bit confusing, but after a couple of rounds of play, it started to fall into place. It’s a well-constructed process that allows action and reactions from each side. Know that you are unlikely to be able to launch a siege without your opponent having the chance to disrupt your actions. (Unless of course, you have a super cool event card that allows you to get a jump on things!)

The action card mechanism is a nice take on the card driven game concept. While the cards don’t totally drive the game, I would say they definitely influence the game. Playing the right card at the right time can have a decisive effect.

The game captures the feel of the Greek world nicely, without complicated processes or a thick rule book. The diplomatic / political dimension as each side jockeys to bring minor states into their sphere of influence feels appropriate for the period. An event card details the importance of Black Sea grain, showing that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Athens is a tough nut to siege, accurately reflecting how the megapolis had extensive walls protecting the city from many a Spartan siege. Sieges themselves may last across game turns, assuming the besieging player is willing to commit the resources to the campaign.

The combat model seemed simplistic at first glance, but it actually does things very well. The need for more supporting troops (skirmishers, cavalry and allied fleets) drives the diplomatic side of the game as you vie to secure military superiority.  Th game builds in the historical representation of Sparta as the premier land power while Athens rules the waves. (Again, the 20th Century Cold War parallel comes to mind. Players will need to pursue a strategy that works with the relative strengths.

Spartan and Athenean fleets clash off Elis

The ability to spend resources in the various areas does allow for exploring different strategies within certain constraints. Each side is limited by the counter mix, so no matter how skilled Sparta may become on the seas, they will never match Athen’s ability to construct large fleets of ships. Well…unless they can first put Athens on the economic ropes so they can’t afford those ships in the first place.

  This feels vaguely like an ancient version of 2 Minutes to Midnight (2M2M). Yeah, I know, I’ve said that before. The superpowers of Sparta and Athens battle for supremacy in the ancient world. But unlike 2M2M, Sparta utilizes card driven play from each player’s hand. While the decks for each war (typically two game turns in length) remain constant, the order in which those cards are dealt and to whom they are dealt will change with each game. This card driven play imparts more decision-making to the players, which makes for more engaging game play. The appearance of the unexpected event can derail your plans or force a radically different path to achieving your goal. In the words of Hierocles, “You will never make the crab walk straight.” Victory will often go to the side best able to capitalize on their opponents’ mistakes.

The game retains its replay value through the inclusion of a set of scenario cards. These impart variability to the set up of the scenarios, providing the players with additional challenges when preparing to play. Combined with the action card decks, it’s unlikely any two games will play out the same way.

Solitaire players, you’ve not been forgotten!  Sparta! includes a double-sided card that defines how the bot will perform across the game turn. It’s not a purely deterministic ‘bot and contains enough randomness that provides an engaging experience.   

If you are looking for an accessible game that brings the great power struggles of Ancient Greece to the table, check out Sparta!. The kickstarter campaign is currently under way and has already passed it’s minimum funding goal. Plague Island game have a proven track record, having brought 2 Minutes to Midnight through the mud and blood of the kickstarter process (during the pandemic no less!) If you are looking for a fun game for an afternoon or an evening, Sparta! will offer you an engaging experience. Playing the game convinced me to surf over and back the game at the deluxe level. It will be a welcome addition to my gaming library.