Solon

Philip II of Macedon
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Designer Diary
By Rick Heli

I thought it might be fun to write something about my game design projects, something I've never tried before.

Today I thought I would write about my current, active design. As some will know, I have previously published two political games, The Republic of Carthage and Founding Fathers. Recently I created a Founding Fathers sequel that is invisible to most of you, but is pretty much complete, at least from a design and development perspective, to me. This game is currently in the graphic design phase, with Luca Cammisa once again capably at the helm.

Since completing that some time ago, I have moved on to the third of four political designs I have conceived (not counting Rome in Crisis, although it too has political elements). I first conceived this one many years ago after reading the fascinating theories of Polybius on the evolution of government types, in particular how Oligarchy tended to lead to Dictatorship which tended to lead to Democracy which leads to Oligarchy again. How fascinating it would be to play a game in which the players must ride a wild roller coaster in which the rules of the game themselves change during play, and in which they could try to trigger these changes themselves.

But who were the players? What could they do, and how? These were big questions and I did not have any immediate answers so I put it aside for other projects.

The problem was that I came to these ideas, and to most of Ancient history in general, from the point of view of Carthage (the wonderful novel The Arrows of Hercules by L. Sprague deCamp served as the initial way in). From there I got to the Greek city-state of Syracuse and for a long time its turbulent history seemed the best setting for this idea. But over time I saw that its relatively short period of interest was something of a limitation, so once again I put the project aside until a better idea came along. (By the way, learning Greek history from this perspective has its odd moments. For example, although many things are going on in Sicily nothing could have been more surprising that suddenly, out of nowhere, Athens decides to invade for no apparent prior reason.)

In 2007 I came across the wonderful Famous Greeks by J. Rufus Fears, which really opened my eyes to what was happening in ancient Athens, and which had been murky to me before that. Sure I had known about Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Pericles, the Spartans and Alexander, but nothing at all about very important figures in world history like Solon, Ephialtes and Kleisthenes. (I know, it's sort of embarrassing, but hey, I was very consumed by medieval, Roman, Chinese and Central Asian history. One cannot read everything all at once.) So just for fun I delved more more deeply into Greek history with the result that by 2010 I had my answer: the game of Polybian politics should, nay must, be set where it all began, Ancient Athens.

Meanwhile I had done Founding Fathers,. a game that, like The Republic of Carthage, drew some inspiration from The Republic of Rome: I realized that this style of game would be perfect for the Athens-based game as well. Not only would players have to contend with and over changing the government type, which actually happened in Athens several times, they would also have to worry about external threats, which would also help motivate, or even sometimes force domestic disruption. Now players would need to contend with all kinds of different factors and finding a winning course through all these threatening shoals would be a true feat indeed. By taking this approach I could also leverage some of the new mechanisms I had created for Founding Fathers plus optional rules I had created for The Republic of Rome as well.

I started serious design on February 7, 2015, while continuing to research at the same time. The biggest immediate problem was where to locate the game in time. I guessed that most players are most familiar with the latter Peloponnesian War, especially since it has featured in the movies, and secondarily with the Persian Wars. But locating in just one or the other was dissatisfying because then it was much less likely to see changes in government so I resolved to include both. But was that good enough? What about the periods before and after?

The earliest period I considered was the time when Athens had kings, but rejected it, mostly because we seem to know practically nothing about it. Following this, as in Rome, oligarchs took over. As in Rome during the period of the Gracchus brothers, this led to considerable class conflict and in Athens the lower classes appear to have had more success than their Roman counterparts. Eventually the oligarchs brought in Solon the Lawgiver to try to make peace. He made many liberalizing changes and then went into self-exile to let his experiment work itself out on its own.

However, it was not long before a Tyrant took over, becoming a virtual dictator. In such times it would be difficult for players to have much of a political voice. Conspiracy and assassination would be about their only options.

Following this Democracy takes over and the Persian Wars begin, followed by the days of the Athenian empire and then the Peloponnesian War.

Many books and even more so, games, depict Athens' loss of that war as a tremendous disaster from which it never recovered. I guess this helps sell books and games, but studying the history really reveals a different story. Athens did recover and rather quickly. She even managed to set up another league. But now a new threat appeared in the form of Philip of Macedon and here was a threat from which it really did not recover, because not only did he conquer, he and his son Alexander changed the entire paradigm. The era of the city-state was gone, replaced by that of a true empire.

Of all this, what to keep and present in the game. After a lot of playtesting and analysis, I decided to create five epochs (all dates BCE):

Admittedly this could become a rather long game. Plus, if too much time is spent in Tyranny, it might not be all that fun for the non-Tyrant players. Thus, while I will make the first period available for those who really want to to delve into it, the game proper starts with the second period, just after democratic reforms have been put in place.

The second, third and fourth epochs are the heart of the game, and the last period is again optional. Although it can be quite interesting, it's also not very easy for Athens to survive.

This is probably more than long enough for an introduction. In future I hope to discuss new ideas for forming factions, how to handle changes in the form of government, how to counter a tyrant and other such topics.

February 7, 2016