Review: Lords of Hellas ★★★✩✩

Five-player setup, including the Atlantis and
City of Steel expansions. (No terrain expansion.)
Lords of Hellas achieves some success mashing up the area control and adventure genres, but leans heavily on asymmetric abilities acquired by players during the course of the game to create interactions between its disparate systems.

As players acquire more decks, more unique abilities and more individual bonuses, complexity degrades into complication and the most reliable strategy for winning the game is to have so much going on in the various decks you have built that other players (overwhelmed with the complexity of their own decks) are unable to predict how you will use them.

For all of its interactive systems, designs and king-of-the-mountain mechanics, Lords of Hellas usually devolves into a disappointingly simplistic trick-taking affair, where the player with enough trumps sweeps unexpectedly to victory in a single turn and, for all the effort, the whole thing ends up feeling like an accident.

Hit the jump for some additional thoughts.

First up, let me say that there is some great, if totally nonsensical, art in this game: from the conceptual stuff in the manuals and on the monster "trays", to the actual sculpts themselves, Lords of Hellas is generally a great game to look at.

I say "generally" because the graphic design (as distinct from the "art") left me cold. To me, the game's numerous printed materials feel like a first draft: they lack refinement and a consistent, economic design "language".

This ends up being a problem for Lords of Hellas because of the game's plethora of printed materials: each player has to manage three separate decks, a "tray" for their hero and keep at least one of the game's two quick references close at hand at all times. The inconsistent design on these materials makes the game feel unrefined, especially in light of the high level of craft evident in the rest of the visual art.

As far as gameplay goes, we played five games with five players each and had a good time every time we played. Lords of Hellas is fun and the rubber-banding is best in class: players are always competitive with one another and, when an individual player suffers a setback, full recovery usually takes one or two turns.

That said, literally every single game ended the same way: one player was able to possess a "land" (a group of territories or "regions") and, when no one was looking, stormed through a second "land" and won the game in a single turn.

This, to my way of thinking, exposes a few design issues. First, there are four win conditions, but one of them is dramatically easier to achieve than the others.

Second, even after we (as a group) realized the potential for this outcome, it was still impossible to prevent: all players need to focus on stopping one player from winning in this particular way, because if they do not, it is very easy for another player to do it.

This is a problem because the game explicitly allows for multiple win conditions and encourages players to find their own path, but they don't actually have that option.

Lords of Hellas also has a difficult learning curve, but not because of complex rules or workflows or anything like that. Rather, there are so many significant, game-changing bonuses available to players in the "Blessing", "Artifact" and "Combat" decks that they build throughout the game, that it is extremely to find yourself completely blind-sided when another player acquires one of these cards.

Finally, as I mentioned above, by the time the endgame rolls around, players are expected to manage multiple decks of cards, be constantly aware of other players' progress towards four separate victory conditions and wait patiently through those players' increasingly lengthy and complicated turns.

Lords of Hellas is a fun but over-designed game: it's got too many disparate systems, and every game we played ended up being an exercise in picking out significant details from the gestalt, rather than pursuing a strategy or blocking an opponent, etc.