Pericles (Mark Herman, GMT Games, 2017) is a four-player game covering the Peloponnesian Wars from 460-400 B.C. Despite the topic, Pericles is not a “wargame” in the traditional sense of the word. There are armies and navies and battles, but they are neatly wrapped inside a more comprehensive design that includes politics, diplomacy, resource management, and balancing several goals in your grand strategy, all while keeping a wary eye on your teammate or “compatriot.”
In Pericles, two players are Spartan kings and two players are Athenian factions. Only one of the four players wins the game, but to do so, your side must also win the war. Consequently, you need your compatriot to do well, but not too well. You don’t want to pull too far ahead, either, or you invite your compatriot to start sabotaging your efforts, which can hurt you both. If you’ve played any of GMT’s COIN games, the dilemma is similar, but the conflict between allies is a bit more direct and explicit.
The easiest way to understand the mechanics of Pericles is to think of two distinct parts for each turn. In the first part, the two pairs of allied players resolve political issues within their own side (including who is in charge for the turn). There are numerous political issues, represented by counters, available for debate. Players choose a total of seven issues for debate then resolve them. Each player has a hand of cards with numerical values which can vary depending on the issue being debated. Resolution of each issue’s debate is card play, with successful play sliding the issue counter along a track toward you. When the debates are over, the player with each issue counter on their side of the track captures the issue (gets the relevant counter). Some counters may end up in a neutral spot on the track and remain unplayed. This happened to my Athenian compatriot and I—we left two of seven counters neutral, which gave each of us fewer actions on the board.
In the second part of the turn, the counters are played to the game map as actions.
For each issue you captured during the debates, you get to decide how to apply the action. Some actions occur immediately. For other actions, players take turns placing their counters face down on the board’s map of ancient Greece. Each player also places two “Rumor” counters that are just bluffs so the other players can’t tell exactly what you are trying to accomplish. After all the playable counters are placed, one counter at a time is revealed and implemented by the player who captured it during the debates. These counters let you move your military forces, tempt enemy forces to betrayal, build forces or bases, visit an oracle, etc. Complicating this, however, is the way counters are placed. The board is divided into 20 “theaters” in which you place the counters, but they must be placed in stacks, face down. If a second counter is placed in the same theater, the second counter goes atop the first counter placed in the theater and must be implemented before it—last in, first out. The first counter you placed is likely (but not guaranteed) to be one of the last activated.
You win by accumulating the most Honor (VP) while on the winning side. A side wins by conquering the other side’s home city-state or (as the Spartans) conquering all of the granaries that feed Athens. You can also win an automatic victory if your Honor is much, much higher than the other players’. If the game goes the distance without a victory by conquest, players add up bonuses for various political and military conditions and determine who has the most Honor.
Each basic mechanic in Pericles is fairly simple. Pick counters. Play cards. Place counters. Turn counters over and take actions. Move wooden bits. Resolve a battle (without dice, by counting up relevant military strength in the theater). The game’s challenging learning curve comes from two sources. The mechanics are simple, but there are a lot of them: choosing issues, building hands of cards, debating issues, claiming counters, placing counters, and resolving each type of counter, which includes rules for building, moving, and fighting units. It takes a while to figure out how those mechanics fit together. The other challenge is figuring out how to use the mechanics to accomplish something on the board. Achieving any goal is a multi-step process and you have to figure out the sequencing to make it work. You could argue that games of any complexity have the same two challenges. Pericles, however, is so deeply layered that it took me about three hours to feel I “had” the system. Early in the game, every player wasted some actions by playing them in completely ineffective ways.
The full campaign game is played over 7-10 turns, which is why this is a “first impressions” review. My recent, first four-player game made it through five turns in about five hours of play. Two had played once, and for two it was the first game. With experienced players, I think, play time could fall to about 30-40 minutes per turn, which means a full game would take the six hours indicated on the box.
My first impression is that Pericles is a masterpiece. Once you get it, the design is very tight. The way its elements fit together makes sense and eventually becomes, if not intuitive, mechanically clear. The game is filthy rich with decision points, and you have to balance the war against your opponents with your compatriots’ status. The politics are thoroughly infused in the design and arguably more important than the military situation. Pericles is a feast of player interaction within and between the two teams, and the interaction comes in an array of forms: politics, bidding, diplomacy, and battles. From a mechanical standpoint, Pericles has everything I want in a game.
My only issue with Pericles is that it is pretty rare for me to get four players together for a campaign game of that length, much less the same four players. That is a real problem for a game with a steep learning curve. I don’t have much trouble finding an opponent for a two-player wargame, even a lengthy one. But I simply don’t know when I’ll get a group together who can play all-out Pericles with enough regularity to master the game but without forgetting the rules between sessions. I have a feeling that, for me, Pericles’ full campaign is a convention game with rare appearances at normal game days. That’s unfortunate, because I had a great time learning and playing it. Alas, the opportunities for the full campaign are going to be limited.
There are also several scenarios of varying lengths in Pericles. These may also help players get into the game—some of the scenarios are very brief programmed learning experiences to teach the rules, some are shorter versions of the full game. I suspect the shorter scenarios are how I’ll play the game a few times within my circle of friends. My groups have had a lot of fun with the non-campaign scenarios in some of the COIN games, and I suspect Pericles will be the same. Wargamers tend to dive straight into the campaign, though, and that’s exactly what we did in my first game.
Pericles comes with “bots,” programmed players that are becoming a staple for multi-player wargames not designed for solo play. If you are comfortable with bots, this will help you get the game on the table. I will say that the bots included with Pericles look at first glance to be comprehensive enough to play a challenging game, and the bots in Herman’s games have that reputation. This review will not cover the bots, however, because I don’t use them. (I completely understand why many players do. It’s just not my thing. If I’ve only got three players, my preference is to find a three-player game. If I’m solo, that’s my time for PC and PS4 gaming.)
The components are of the typical high quality GMT uses for its non-traditional wargames, much like a COIN game. Pericles has wooden bits, including cubes, sticks, discs, cylinders round and hexagonal, a pair of meeples, and some pawns. There are also thick cardboard counters with rounded corners, a mounted board, pretty effective player aids, a couple of dice, and nice cards. People have a love-hate relationship with Mark Herman’s rules, but I’ve grown accustomed to his very literal writing style, so they were not an obstacle for me. One of the other players gave up and resorted to watching how-to-play videos, though.
Bottom line: Pericles is a great design that requires more-than-normal commitment from its players. If you have a group looking for a really deep strategic experience and lots of player interaction, plus a historical setting, Pericles could be for you. Pericles has a few surface similarities to GMT’s COIN series, but the gameplay experience and strategies needed are quite different, with mechanics designed specifically for the historical period.