A few years ago, we did our first interview with a new designer named Kris Van Beurden covering the very interesting game called Europe in Turmoil: Prelude to The Great War from Compass Games. As you might know, as a part of our Guns of August Event last summer, we got to play Europe in Turmoil and it was as good as I thought it might be when I did that interview.
We next did an interview covering his next game called Barbarians at the Gates: The Decline and Fall of the Western Roman Empire 337 – 476 from Compass Games and it also looks really good. I actually backed that game on Kickstarter and we have readied it for play just looking for an opportunity. Then we saw where he was working on a follow-up effort to Europe in Turmoil called Europe in Turmoil II: The Interbellum Years 1920-1939 and did another interview.
Recently, we were contacted by Stuart Tonge from Plague Island Games and he informed us that there was an upcoming Kickstarter for a new game from Kris called SPARTA! Struggle for Greece and we reached out to Kris who was more than willing to share with us ahead of the campaign that is set to launch on September 12th.
Grant: Welcome back Kris for another interview here on The Players’ Aid. I was very excited when I saw your upcoming game and wanted to know what historical event does SPARTA! Struggle for Greece cover?
Kris: In SPARTA!, two separate periods (each lasting around 30 years) are covered. In the first scenario, the Peloponnesian War, the period of struggle between the Athenian Empire and Sparta’s Peloponnesian League (432 BC – 404 BC) is covered. Historically this ended in the defeat of Athens and the rise to ascendancy of Sparta. In the second scenario, the Theban Wars, the period of struggle between the Boeotian League (centred on Thebes but also including allies such as the renewed Athenian Empire) and the Peloponnesian League is covered. This is the period from 395 BC to 362 BC. Historically, following Sparta’s defeat in the battle of Leuctra, Thebes emerged from this period as the strongest city-state in Greece.
Finally, a campaign scenario linking both scenarios is also provided. Within the scope of the Kickstarter campaign, it is likely that additional scenarios may be added, increasing the amount of historical periods covered. I invite every reader to come check the Kickstarter out once it is live to read more on this.
Grant: What from the history of the Peloponnesian War did you need to include and model in the design?
Kris: Greece at this time was divided in many small city-states, regionally associated into Leagues which were usually dominated by the largest of the members (Sparta within the Peloponnesian League, Athens within the Delian League, etc.). It was important for me that the game was not just about warfare but also about politics and diplomacy.
Grant: How did you go about differentiating the forces of the Spartans, Thebans and Athenians?
Kris: Mechanically, each of these factions have the same intrinsic game moves available to them. The difference lies in which resources their home territory provides, the initial setup, their available leaders and which bonuses their specific Action cards provide.
Athens begins stronger at sea while Sparta (with its elite Spartiates) begins stronger on land. Attica provides the Athenian player with Diplomatic Points, which will improve their political Action cards. Thebes receives an additional Battle card each turn, which gives it more options during military conflicts. Athenian Leaders give an edge on the sea while providing incentive for land battles, Spartan leaders generally improve being on land while not necessarily improving Sparta in land battles, and Theban leaders give an edge in land battles.
Grant: You have done a few designs covering the Ancients. What draws you to designing games around conflicts in this era?
Kris: The design of SPARTA! goes back to my very first steps into (published) game design, when I was looking for a good two-player conflict that included politics and diplomacy. Being from Europe, our first history lessons at school usually treat the ancient
& classical civilizations including Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, Egypt, and then Greece. As such, it was these historical eras that first fueled my love for history.
Grant: What area of the Peloponnesian region does the map cover?
Kris: The Greeks in this era dominated the Aegean Sea and its coasts, so all of Greece and the coastlines of Asia Minor (currently Turkey) are included. Additionally, the Dardanelles Straits were very important for the import of Black Sea grain to Athens, and likewise Sicily is included for the Sicilian grain on which Sparta relied. Finally, the many (Greek and non-Greek) allies, whose
lands were not targeted during the wars but did provide assistance to the belligerents, are added.
Grant: What key strategic areas need to be considered by the players in how they go about their campaigns? What pinch points does the geography create?
Kris: There are three important types of areas to look out for:
● Some of the regions are more strategic than others. While most regions provide military assistance, some (Sicily and Hellespont through Grain, Chalcidice through silver) provide the monetary resources to launch military campaigns.
● Some spaces are Megapolis and in addition to the normal role of a space in controlling a region, they also provide additional military strength in hoplite manpower.
● Next to regions inhabited by Greeks and represented by multiple city-state spaces, the map also contains five allies. These regions were not battlegrounds in this period (at least not for Greeks) or were too vast to be conquered by the Greek powers involved. As such, they are present, can provide resources if allied with either player, and can serve as staging areas without being military objectives themselves. Allying with these can be very important, as Persian assistance in conquering the Hellespont or the Ionian Coast of the Aegean Sea, or Macedonian assistance in dominating Chalcidice or Thessaly can be invaluable. The game is all about gaining control over city spaces, whether via diplomatic or military ways, and through this control, dominating regions. While there are several geographical pinch points, much of the transport in this day and age was done via the sea. The player ahead in naval strength will have a much better chance of getting raids and other military expeditions underway than the player who has to stay tied to the sparse roads (several of which are not even available for use at the start of the game).
Grant: What different values do regions have and what are their unique benefits when controlled?
Kris: Each region in SPARTA! is composed of between three and seven city spaces, each of which can contain influence from a single player and is controlled if influence equal to its autonomy is present. Regions are controlled by the player who has the highest combined autonomy of controlled spaces in the region. At the beginning of each turn (and only then!), such control is
assessed and its reward is given to the current controller. This can range from the usage of the Corinthian Fleet, fielding skirmishers from Macedonia, hiring Archers from Crete, or simply receiving three talents worth of Sicilian grain.
Grant: There are four spaces on the map (Rhium, Heraclea, Decelea, and Pylos) that do not have regular boxes and are completely blank. What do these spaces represent?
Kris: During the Peloponnesian War, several key strategic locations were either settled or re-settled by Sparta or Athens. These colony spaces are not available at the beginning of the game and players have to found them through card-play (either aggressively settle a location threatening the opponent, or defensively settling a location that would otherwise threaten you). Rhium was a settlement that dominated one of the sea approaches to Corinth. Heraclea opened the route from the Peloponnesos to Thessaly/Macedonia/Thracia and even threatened such Athenian possessions as Euboea. Decelea was the location of a fortified camp in Attica where the Spartan army camped for over a decade, threatening Athens itself. Finally, Pylos was the site of the battle of Sphacteria, one of the few Spartiate defeats on land, and a site that threatened Sparta whilst also providing a refuge for
escaped Helot slaves.
Grant: What does the different sizes and shapes of spaces on the map represent?
Kris: The different shapes represent firstly the five allies mentioned above. Additionally, you can observe the city-state spaces, which are divided in three categories. Polis spaces are the minor city-states which really only dominate the surroundings of the city itself. They have an autonomy of one, can be controlled by a single influence cube, and count for “1” in assessing control over their region. Metropolis spaces are larger cities from which different colonies were founded and whose influence went beyond the fields they could see. They have an autonomy of two, need two influence cubes to be controlled, and count twice when assessing control. Finally, Megapolis spaces are the movers and shakers of the ancient Greek world. There are only five (although a single card exists that can promote a Metropolis to Megapolis level): Athens, Corinth, Sparta, Syracuse, and Thebes. They have an
autonomy of three and count three times when assessing control. Additionally, they provide a base for military matters, and supply hoplites to their alliance. It is quite hard to gain control over a Megapolis, but the reward is definitely there.
Gran: How are Influence markers placed and what effect do they have? What does this represent from the history?
Kris: As mentioned above, this was a time of diplomacy, as each League attempted to expand their membership while limiting their rivals. The game uses a mechanic called “Envoys” (available in Lesser and Greater variant) which are usually only available via Action cards and can be used to remove or add influence to a space (each space being limited to containing influence only
from a single player). In this manner, a player can either add influence of their League (and attempt to make other cities join their League), or remove influence of their opponent’s League (and make other cities break with that League).
It was important for me to make a clear distinction between military and diplomatic matters. As such, the game contains both Talents ( a resource for use in military matters) and Battle Cards on the one hand, and Favour (a resource for use in diplomatic matters) and Action Cards (usually providing diplomatic rather than military support). Depending on which resources a player amasses, their strategy should change.
Grant: What information is contained on the Player Mats?
Kris: Player mats are divided in four general sections.
1) The Treasury, where players keep their resources (Talents, Favour, Desperate Times marker)
2) The Assembly, where players keep their available leaders.
3) The Estates, where players keep their spent leaders.
4) The Manpower boxes, where players keep their military miniatures (or,
when deployed on the map, the leaders commanding these miniatures).
Grant: What role do cards play in the design? What different types of cards are included?
Kris: SPARTA! uses two different types of cards. Action cards are mostly a diplomatic resource (although there are plenty with
a more military approach). Each turn, both players receive six cards, and during the Action phase they take turns playing one of these cards (with the Action phase ending once neither player has cards left).
Battle cards are a military resource. Battle cards are received at the start of battle or during gameplay, and provide a strong additional military bonus. They are also the only non-deterministic element in battles.
Grant: What role do Leader Cards play? How many different leaders are there included in the game? What are the assembly box and the command section of a hoplite or trireme’s manpower box? Can we see a few examples
of Leaders and you explain their use?
Kris: Leaders and their flow are critical for the military aspect of the game. Both
sides have military miniatures available, but these are merely “waiting in their
barracks” until mobilised and led by a leader. These miniatures represent either Hoplite armies, or Trireme Fleets.
Leaders begin each turn “ready” in their respective assemblies. When a player
spends three talents, they may select a leader and place him in the command
section of a miniatures’ manpower box. At this point, the leader becomes a
commander and the miniature becomes mobilised.
Mobilised miniatures can (in the next turn) then be deployed to the game
board, whether to initiate battle against a hostile miniature, or to invade the
Once a miniature’s work is done, they return to their manpower box (meaning they are then available to once again mobilise), but the leader moves from that command box to the Estates (finished for this turn). There are two types of Leaders, generic ones and named ones. Each side has three generic leaders (Strategos, Navarch, and Polemarch) and six named leaders per scenario (with one leader per side overlapping per scenario). Each side begins with three generic leaders and two named leaders per scenario, with one new named leader arriving in turns two, three, four, and five.
Leaders have two sides, their base and experienced side. Base leaders have either no ability (if generic) or a weak ability, whereas their experienced side has an ability (if generic) or a stronger version of their base ability (if named). When a leader is eliminated, they are permanently out of the game unless generic, in which case they revert to their base side.
Grant: What different units are available for each side?
Kris: All deployment on the map is done by either Hoplites or Triremes. The difference is twofold:
1) Hoplites can only be battled by hoplites, in Hoplite Battles, while Triremes can only be battled by other Triremes, in Naval Battles.
2) Triremes can always be deployed to any Harbour space on the map. Hoplites need to be able to march from a space of origin (an ally, a colony, a megapolis) via neutral or friendly spaces, to the target space. Important here to mention perhaps is that spaces on the map are connected to each other via road connections. Obviously, as the game centres on the Aegean Sea, many spaces being islands have no connections at all. Much of Greek transport and travel in this era went via the sea, so overland connections are sparse. Three of the colonial spaces (Rhium, Heraclea and to a lesser extent Decelea) are important as they vastly expand the road network and the available marching routes).
Grant: What is the general Sequence of Play?
Kris: A turn consists of Regional Assessment, Hoplite Reset, Shipbuilding, Recruitment, Rebuilding, the Action phase, and the Olympic Games phase.
During the Regional Assessment phase, control over regions and allies is determined and the reward awarded (until the next assessment phase).
Hoplite Reset, Shipbuilding, Recruitment, and Rebuilding provide opportunities for military recruitment, after which all Raided spaces return to normal state.
During the Action phase, each player draws six cards and takes turns (Spartan player first) taking Action rounds.
During the Olympic Games phase, some housekeeping is done and the Olympic Games occur.
During an Action Round, the player performs the following steps:
1) Resolve any existing deployments (Hoplite and Triremes raid the space they are in, and then optionally start a siege there)
2) Play an Action card and resolves its effects
3) Deploy currently mobilised Hoplites and Triremes to space(s) on the board, either to initiate battle or to be deployed on enemy territory (for resolution in step 1 of their next Action Round). Any undeployed Hoplites and Triremes are demobilized, the leaders returned to the Assembly
4) The player may make new mobilizations, spending three or five talents to move a leader to an available hoplite or trireme’s command box (if five talents are used, they also draw a Battle card).
5) Per siege, a single prosecute siege action may be taken, at the cost of 2 Talents
6) Battles initiated in step 3 are resolved now
Grant: How are units recruited and Fleet strength increased?
Kris: It was fairly easy for cities to replenish their Hoplite Phalanxes even following disasters (as the difficulty was often in supplying a field force rather than recruiting it). As such, each turn, players reset their respective Hoplite Strengths to the base values (with minor modifications based on the relative position at the end of the previous turn), increased by one for each friendly
Megapolis and decreased by one for each ongoing siege. Ships, on the other hand, had to be built. During each recruitment phase,
players get the opportunity to spend Talents to perform some shipbuilding actions in order to increase their fleet strengths. Finally, players receive Military Assets through Regional Control (e.g. Cretan Archers, Thessalian Cavalry, the Corinthian Fleet, the Sacred Band of Thebes). Once eliminated, these can be rebuilt during the Recruitment phase.
Grant: How does Battle work? How are Battle Cards used? Why are these limited to only 6 cards?
Kris: It was important for me that 1) battles did not take too long to resolve and 2) even the non-deterministic side of its resolution needed to be linked to the strategic game board position and not too much on random luck.
During each battle, players begin by determining the current Advantage holders. In a Hoplite battle, the available Advantages are: most Elite Formations, most Cavalry, most Skirmishers, highest Hoplite Strength, and Home ground (current control over the battle region). In a Naval battle, the available Advantages are: most Allied Fleet, highest Fleet Strength, and Home
Ground. Each Advantage is worth a single Battle Strength. Subsequently, players can play Battle cards in order to increase their Battle Strength (with each Battle card having a unique effect, with unique prerequisites). It is important to engineer battles (or the game board state) to correspond with your available Battle cards. Battle cards are typically received during mobilisation (see above) or at the start of battle, where players with fewer than three Battle cards draw one. Both the rule of three and the rule of
six were instated to have players seek battle rather than stockpile resources.
Grant: What are the consequences or benefits of a decided battle?
Kris: Regardless of the outcome of the battle, the deployment of the defender is ended. As such, even battles in which you are likely to be defeated are valuable to initiate, in order to prevent a raid and/or siege. However, this does not count for Sieges. A siege is only ended if the attacker is victorious.
Additionally, the victorious side (or the drawing side) loses 1 involved strength point (e.g. one Hoplite Strength in a Hoplite Battle), while the defeated side loses 2 strength points. The Victorious player also receives a Favour. Finally, each leader involved in battle rolls a custom die. On a failure (one in six), the leader is permanently eliminated. On a success (three in six), the leader becomes experienced (or the player draws a Battle card, if the leader was already experienced).
Grant: What is the Siege procedure? How do sieges end?
Kris: As mentioned earlier, hoplites and triremes are deployed to the map and (if still there and not battled away) this deployment is resolved at the start of that player’s next action round. Such a deployment always results in a Raid (gain a Talent), but then the
player has the choice to return home (leaving the space uncontrolled until the beginning of the next turn, but also ending the deployment of their miniature) or remain to siege (the space remains uncontrolled until the Siege marker is removed. The deployed miniature is changed to a Hoplite if a Trireme).
Sieges can be prosecuted during any Action round (including the one where the Siege started), at the cost of 2 talents per attempt (one attempt per round). Besieging player rolls a number of custom dice (base one, with additional modifiers for Action cards, Leader abilities, control over adjacent spaces, etc.) and each success removes one influence from the space until empty of influence, after which it becomes fully controlled by the besieging player.
Grant: What are the Victory Conditions for the game?
Kris: At the end of the sixth and final turn of a scenario, count the number of regions controlled by either player, with the highest count winning the game. Earlier versions contained sudden death and automatic victory conditions. In the end, we did away with these. Players who feel defeated may always surrender a game before the end of the sixth turn, but certainly I always fight until the bitter end. The game has sufficient mechanisms for come-back that feeling behind early does not necessarily mean the game is over.
Grant: What different scenarios are included? What special rules are included in these scenarios?
Kris: Originally, the game was supposed to be only about the Peloponnesian War. This was supposed to be a scenario pitting the Delian League (led by Athens) versus the Peloponnesian League (led by Sparta), split in three parts (the initial Archidamian War, the Peace of Nicias, and finally the Ionian War). However, once I had finished the initial design for that game, I found out that
another conflict, fought over more or less the same area, for about the same span of time, occurred barely ten years after the end of the first conflict. As such I added the Theban Wars scenario, split in the Corinthian War, the King’s Peace and finally the Theban War. Whilst the main protagonists of these wars are actually Thebes and Sparta, Athens is for most of the war allied with Thebes and the players are still called Athens and Sparta in this second scenario.
In order for players to experience the entire seventy years period, the scenarios can be played in order, with a ten-year-interphase turn added. Each scenario comes with four setup cards, slightly changing the setup for different experiences each time.
Grant: What have been some changes that have come about through the playtest process? What still needs work?
Kris: This is the first game I have made where I truly had a developer rather than doing the design & development both by myself. As such, having Stuart (Tonge) as a sounding board was invaluable. There have been many changes over the course of playtesting. One of the important changes was how OP’s and Events were separated. Initially, the Action cards drove both military and diplomatic matters. To ensure both occurred rather than only the most expedient of the two, OP’s were removed from the cards (and turned into the Talents the game uses now), and Events were no longer optional but mandatory. Additionally, early versions of the design used a battle card system reminiscent of Hannibal: Rome versus Carthage, which was eventually scrapped in lieu of the current system.
Grant: What are you most pleased about with the design?
Kris: During the Peloponnesian War scenario, Sparta is dominant on land while Athens is dominant at sea, but it is always possible to have an upset battle and be defeated even where ahead. Additionally, by investing wisely, it is possible to craft an Athenian army supported by sufficient skirmishers and cavalry that it can outmaneuver the elite Spartiate phalanx. Players begin the game with merely Phalanx armies, but will soon learn the power of the other arms.
Grant: What has been the response of playtesters?
Kris: This is the first game of mine where playtesters personally requested to test this game again, rather than me asking them to make the time. They were very patient through the many iterations, and their input and critique really made the game what it is today.
Grant: What other games are you currently working on?
Kris: Currently undergoing playtesting are:
● a CDG about the Battle of the Bulge, currently codenamed 1944: Herbstnebel. It uses a point-to-point map, with unit scale at
Division/Regiment level and a timescale of 18 turns, each lasting 2 days.
● a game on the Thirty Years’ War, using a variation on the No Peace Without Spain system.
● I am also working on a predecessor to Europe in Turmoil I and II, about Europe during the years 1830-1890, and a two-player game based on Arthurian Legends. Finally, the games that are merely a few words and ideas scribbled on paper are Enfants de la Patrie (a four player diplomatic game about the French Revolution), STAVKA (a Barbarossa game all about reserves management),
Belisarius (a CDG on Emperor’s Justinian’s conquests of Africa and Italy), and Ulm to Austerlitz (an operational block game about the 1805 campaign in Bavaria and Austria)
If you are interested in SPARTA! Struggle for Greece, you can sign up to be notified when the Kickstarter campaign launches at the following link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/plagueislandgames/sparta-struggle-for-greece
“This is the first game of mine where playtesters personally requested to test this game again, rather than me asking them to make the time.” – I can attest to that 🙂
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We really enjoyed the game. Lots of great paths to take. Loved the combat with the cards. Very slick.