There are plenty of games that are all theme and no deep gameplay, and they can be fun. Games like Pirates of the Caribbean LIFE which is your basic mindless spin-move-act game with almost no decisions to make, just a great theme to enjoy. Then there are games where the theme and gameplay work beautifully together, like Pandemic and The Manhattan Project. The two-player strategy game Agamemnon falls somewhere else on the continuum: a theme that doesn’t really add much to the gameplay, and a fascinating strategy game that’s almost lost in the theme and design.
First off, let’s get the name out of the way: Remember the epic poem The Illiad that you were supposed to read in high school but probably skipped, preferring the Cliff’s Notes version? Agamemnon was one of the characters in the sweeping epic adventure tale, the warrior who led the Greeks in their attack on Troy. Problem was, Ag pissed off the Gods and the epic battle for Troy was just as much about the Gods intervening in the affairs of man as about an actual battle of two great armies.
Got it? Good. The game is sorta related to that, but only in as much as the poem talks about the strings of fate that bind the will of mortal man. The two sided board has a basic and more complex game, so we started with the basic game. One player is the Trojans and the other is, of course, the Greeks, and you can see that the board itself is a series of nodes and connectors:
I’ll explain everything in more detail, but it’s important to realize that the connectors are actually tokens placed atop the matching patterns because the connections can change as the game progresses. They’re the visual representation of the strings of fate.
Let’s look at the elements up close:
Each player has an array of tokens that represent warriors, leaders and weavers. From the top left, the first token is a leader – “D” (Ajax), the strongest of all the Greeks – who has a letter that indicates rank and a small 3-spear icon that indicates his strength. Next are two warrior tokens, one that’s strength 1 and the second strength 3. The last two are the weavers, and those are where things get interesting!
The first weaver is represented by the letter Phi and is a “weft” which splits all strings that travel through its node, while the second is a “warp”, allowing any two strings to swap and thereby affect much of the strings of fate on the board.
The bars along the bottom are string tiles, Force, Strength and Leadership, respectively. When the game ends, the player with the most strength (spears) along a force string wins that string, the player with the most connected playing tiles, and along a leadership string the player with the playing tile of the highest rank (ascertained by the letter on the token).
To understand why the Weavers are so significant, let’s look more closely at a portion of the board:
Strings are just that: the longer the string, the more valuable it is when you count up your score at the end of the game. Above you can see that the leadership string in the middle is exactly one unit long: there are no other strings coming out of either connected node that are leadership. Except if you were to play a warp on the top left node, you could flip the leadership string over and double the length of that string.
Scratching your head yet? Yeah, it took us the entire game and a few hours of thinking about it afterwards to really understand the depth and strategy of Agamemnon.
Let’s look at our board about 2/3 of the way along:
Remember, the strength threads are red, leadership threads are beige, and force threads are yellow, and that strength is determined by a comparison of spear counts, leadership is highest single leader in the thread and force is simply who has more tokens on the chain. The open spaces are still to play, and each player has all their tokens face down, flipping up two per turn and then placing them.
And this is hugely where the Weavers are important, because a single warp or weft can completely change a string of fate or series of strings, merging or splitting them asunder.
Let me walk you through two so you can see what I mean:
Let’s start with the green highlight, the force string. You can see it’s four segments long, and, starting at the left, it’s the Greek leader “E” (Menelaus, as it happens), a Trojan double spear, the Trojan leader “A” (Aeneas, of course), a Greek triple spear, then a Trojan single spear. Since it’s a force string (the dots) it’s won by the player with the majority of tokens, Trojans. That’s 4 points.
More complicated is the strength string highlighted in red. The leftmost node is still open, but at this point who is likely to win this wonderful, long string of fate? Simply count up the number of spears represented from each army, but remember to stop at the weft (the Greek letter Phi) on the right side, since that forces the string to split. The Greeks with their dark tokens have 3 + 3 +2 before the weft, then 1, then a second weft. The Trojans have 4 (leader “C”, Hector) then zero on the second string between the two wefts, and 1 at the end. Could the Trojans take the 6-segment string by placing the right token on the open left space? Nope. They’d need five to take it and there are no leaders that strong in the game.
Complicated? Actually, once you start playing the game, it makes a lot of sense.
The problem with Agamemnon is that the theme doesn’t add much to the gameplay and the design ends up being rather confusing. Why is leadership represented by the interlocking zigzag symbol (however much it may be a classic Greek repeating symbol)? Why is force represented by dots? And the warp and weft symbols baffled us until we decided that the Phi looked like a bisected circle and we should consider that a “split” or “cut”.
Except The Illiad is a fantastic story full of adventure and amazing tales. It’s well worth digging into (and there are lots of modern translations, graphic novels and movies if you can’t handle the original epic poem). One of the best stories is about the siege of Troy, with Aeneas defending the Trojan city while Agamemnon, Odysseus (the hero of The Illiad), Achilles and Ajax attack and scheme ways to win. But how that applies to this game with its oft-confusing symbology? That’s another story entirely.
In conclusion, I like Agamemnon and am eager for a rematch with my friend. It’s a game that will require some study and thought to fully grok what’s going on and how everything fits together, but I believe it’ll be worth the effort.
Agamemnon, Designed by Gunter Cornett, Published by Osprey Games. $14.51 at Amazon.com.
Disclosure: Osprey Games sent me a copy of this title for review purposes.