Iliad (2006)

A card game by Dominique Ehrhard

Iliad is a competitive card game for 2 to 6 players inspired by Homer’s battle epic. While the theme is light, I warmly recommend it.

Josho Brouwers

Over the years, the story of the Trojan War has been the source of inspiration to countless film makers and writers. It’s no surprise, then, that game designers have also turned to the stories immortalized by Homer and later poets, writers, and artists for inspiration. One of these games carries the not very original title of Iliad.

Iliad is a card game that was published in 2006 by Asmodée editions. It’s been designed by Dominique Ehrhard. While the game is set during the Trojan War, the theme is quite light and not without its problems (as I’ll explain further down). Nevertheless, it’s an elegantly designed game with fantastic production values that I recommend without any reservations.

Game overview

In Iliad, 2 to 6 players set out to besiege the city of Troy. The game is divided into rounds (called “sieges”), during which players take turn to play a card from their hand to the table. Most cards have a value printed in the upper corners and the winner of the round is the player who manages to attain the highest score and thereby collect victory points. The first player to collect 12 victory points (or VPs), wins the game; in a two-player match, you have to reach 15 points.

There are four different cards in the game: Army, Victory, Oracle, and Heroes. The majority consists of 75 Army cards. These are shuffled and put face-down so as to form a draw pile. At the start of the game, each player is dealt a hand of 12 cards from this pile. Victory cards and Oracle cards are shuffled separately and placed into their own piles, face-down. An Oracle card is revealed at the start of the round (explained further below), and Victory cards are turned over.

The six Hero cards in the game. All six are only played in a six-player game, otherwise you play with as many heroes as there are players, starting with Patroclus (value 1). In a two-player game, the Hero cards are not used.

Hero cards, like Oracle cards, are used only in games with three players or more, and you put as many heroes on the table as there are players, starting with the lowest-value hero. This means that e.g. Achilles (with value 5) will only ever be used in games with five or six players. Whenever a player passes their turn, they pick the highest-value hero available and add him to their army, increasing their score by their value. (In a two-player game, a round only ends after both players have passed their turn.)

The Victory cards determine what the players are fighting for. The number of cards revealed on the table is different depending on the number of players (e.g. 2 cards in a two-player game, 3 in a five-player game, and so on). There are three kinds of Victory cards: Cities (with a value between 1 and 3 VPs), Triremes (again between 1 and 3 VPs), and a single Helen card (worth a whopping 5 VPs).

The Army cards represent different types of troops or war machines. There are archers, hoplites, chariots, elephants, ballistae, catapults, harrows (i.e. wooden stakes), and Trojan Horses (yes, plural). Most of these cards have a value and specific rules apply to them, outlined in the rule book’s glossary and also summarized on a seperate player sheet.

This is what your play area might look like after a while. In this case, the player has put down a harrow (protecting him from attacks by chariots), a ballista (which can take out a chariot or an elephant), and an archer (which can kill another archer or a hoplite). He has also played a phalanx of hoplites (worth 21 points) and has put a card face-down in his Trojan Horse: this card won’t be revealed until the horse is destroyed or the round ends.

Hoplites, for example, can be stacked into phalanxes. The rule here is that every hoplite you add to a phalanx must have a value less than the last hoplite placed in it. The highest value a hoplite card can have is 4, so you could create a phalanx consisting of four hoplites with the values 4, 3, 2, and 1. You cannot add a hoplite in between other hoplites, so if you have a phalanx consisting of a 4 and 2 card, you can’t slide the card with a value of 3 in between them.

Phalanxes are the best way to increase your overall army value. Normally, a card has only the value printed on it. But if you stack hoplites in a phalanx, you add their values together and then multiply them by the number of cards in the phalanx. So, let’s say that you have a phalanx consisting of cards with a value of 4, 3, and 1. Add those together and you get 8, which you then multiply by three to arrive at a total score of 24.

Naturally, there are plenty of ways to sabotage your opponents. Archers, which all have a value of 1, are allowed to attack (and thereby remove) the hoplite with the lowest value from a phalanx. (Note that the attacking card is also discarded!) You can also put an archer on an elephant card. The elephant card can carry two other cards (hoplites and/or archers), and multiplies the value of the cards placed on it by two. Importantly, an archer placed on an elephant can take out the highest value hoplite from a phalanx.

The chariot card can be played to the table or you can use it to attack with directly from your hand, making it very powerful. The elephant can carry two other cards (hoplites and/or archers), doubling the value of those cards. In this instance, the hoplite would be worth 2 points. Cards on an elephant are also invulnerable to attack (but the elephant itself is not).

A chariot card has a value of 3, but you can use it to destroy an opposing archer or hoplite. It’s also the only card you can attack with directly from your hand: archers and other cards that can attack (like ballistae and catapults) have to be put on the table first before you can attack with them. On any turn, you can only either play a card from your hand, or attack, making the chariot’s ability to attack directly from your hand quite powerful. You can counter it by playing a harrow, which prevents chariots from attacking.

It’s also a good way to surprise an opponent. Similarly, the Trojan Horse allows you to place cards on it face down. Your opponents won’t know what cards are in there until the end of the round, when you reveal them and can even stack hoplites in phalanxes. Of course, a catapult can be used to destroy a Trojan Horse, in which case all of the cards “fall out” and have to be placed face-up and side-by-side: if this happens, hoplites are not placed into phalanxes.

I won’t go into too much detail as regards the special characteristics of all the cards; the foregoing should give you ample idea of the variety that’s on offer here. I do need to explain the rounds (“sieges”) themselves a bit more. When playing with more than 2 players, an Oracle card is revealed at the start of the round that determines how the round is played out.

There are two types of Oracle cards, of which the thanatos (“death”) one is the most common. At the end of a round, the player with the lowest value army gets this card: it counts as negative VP. In this case, the player would lower their total VP score by 1. Like Hero cards, Oracle cards aren’t used in two-player games.

A thanatos (“death”) Oracle card is essentially the normal way to play: players take their turns and, sooner or later, decide to pass, usually either because they think they can win or because they want to cut their losses. Army scores are then calculated and a victor is determined. The more rare type of Oracle card is the Gorgon: these rounds are very quick, ending the moment one player, at the start of their turn, has a higher value army on the table than their opponents. And yes, this means that Trojan Horses cannot be played during a Gorgon siege.

When the round is over, the winner picks a Victory card. The victor also gains one of the three tiles that comes with the game, the so-called Agamemnon tile. It’s worth 1 VP and the player who owns it gets to start the next round. With four players, the second-strongest player gets to pick a Victory card from the ones left, and in a five-player game, the third-best player gets the final card.

The player with the highest-value City cards also gets the Athena tile, which is worth 2 VP. The player with the highest value Trireme cards gets the Poseidon tile, which is likewise worth 2 points. This is perhaps where the theme shinest brightest in the game, since the division of the Victory cards in cities and triremes means that there’s a tactical choice to be made even after you’ve won the round, since getting the most of both will net you extra VPs thanks to the associated tiles.

The game comes with three tiles shaped like ancient pots (“urns”). Each of them is worth victory points. The Agamemnon tile is awarded to the winner of the round and is worth 1 VP. The Athena tile goes to the player with the highest value of City Victory cards; Poseidon is given to the player with the highest value Trireme Victory cards. In case of a tie, the tile remains with its original owner. Athena and Poseidon are each worth 2 VP.

Once the round is over, all of the cards on the table get discarded and players get just three new cards to add to their hand. This means that you really have to think in the long term. Yes, you might easily win this round if you play all your cards, but you’ll be unlikely to win the game as a whole. Deciding when to bow out and save your cards for the next round is more important than just trying to reach the highest value possible in any given round.

While the foregoing sounds perhaps quite complex, the rules are actually fairly simple, with the game being not too dissimilar from e.g. Rummy 500. The game is quick to set up and play, but offers quite a bit of depth. Being able to attack your opponents (and thereby lower their score) adds a nice element of interactivity, and the fact that you’ll only ever need to perform one action during your turn means that there’s very little downtime.

Not your father’s Trojan War

The theme of the game is light. The game’s designer, Dominique Ehrhard, originally intended for the game to have a medieval theme, which perhaps explains some of its stranger aspects. The Trojan War didn’t feature ballistae or catapults, nor did Agamemnon’s army ever field elephants. There were also no “hoplites” (Homer speaks simply of “spearmen”), nor were troops deployed in phalanxes. Similarly, the story of the Trojan War only ever featured one Trojan Horse: the game has four of them.

While those are relatively minor problems that can be chalked up to creative licence, a major issue with the game is its central mechanic. Each round (or “siege”), all players have to amass an army of Greeks, no doubt contingents necessary to storm the walls of Troy. But why would these different contingents attack each other? For example, why would I have to build a harrow to make sure that my opponent cannot kill one of my archers or hoplites with a chariot, if we’re all on the same team?

This actually becomes less of a problem when you play the game with only two players, since the heroes are not included and you can pretend that one side controls the Greeks while the other controls the Trojans. Otherwise, in a multiplayer game, a player who passes picks the hero with the highest value currently available and adds them to their army, which must, by necessity, mean that the army consists entirely of Greeks.

A selection of different Victory cards. They come in three types: cities, triremes, and Helen. Naturally, there’s only one Helen card in the game and she’s worth 5 victory points in total. The cities and triremes have a value of between 1 and 3 victory points each.

Still, none of these issues detracts from the game itself. When playing, no one ever seems to question the logic behind the game’s rules. We’re all competing to field the most valuable army available, and that competition in and of itself seems to suit the context of the Trojan War just fine. When a rival’s archer shoots down one of your hoplites, consider it an act inspired by the capricious gods. That is to say: the cognitive dissonance between the game’s rules and its theme don’t detract from the overall experience.

Special mention needs to be made of the artwork. Created by illustrator John Mac Cambridge, it suitably evokes the ancient world, even though the armour and equipment depicted in the illustrations is rather more Hollywood than historical, complete with bracers and leather pteryges (the protective strips that cover the lower body and upper legs). Nevertheless, the artwork is beautiful, and the game simply looks great when laid out on the table.

The production values of the game as a whole are top notch. It comes in a small box that is a perfect fit for all of the components. The cards are of sturdy stock, with a smooth finish. The three victory point tokens (Agamemnon, Athena, Poseidon) are of solid cardboard stock that have that nice sort of “wooden” feel to them. It’s a quality production, and the game plays well, regardless of the total number of players involved.

Closing thoughts

Despite its thematic oddities, Iliad is a great game, and you should play it if you’re interested in card games. But before I leave you to (hopefully) pick up a copy of the game and play it with friends and family, I want to suggest two other games to you that are similar to Iliad and that are also worth checking out. Like Iliad, they are both card games, feature similar mechanics, and have a fairly straightforward, easy-to-learn ruleset.

Iliad is similar to Dominique Ehrhard’s earlier game Condottiere (1995), which is set in thirteenth-century Italy and includes a map of Italy with regions to conquer using your army of mercenaries. Like Iliad, it’s central mechanic consists of putting cards on the table in order to reach the highest value and thereby “score” (in this case, claim a region on the map). If you like Iliad, Condottiere is definitely worth checking out.

The developers of the computer role-playing game The Witcher III seem to have used Condottiere as a basis for their in-universe, pseudo-medieval card game Gwent. They have since then modified it quite a bit and released it as a multiplayer-focused game in its own right (with the same name). Recently, a single-player version of the game was released called Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales, which is a combination of an RPG and Gwent, and is quite fun.

Last but not least, there’s the two-player card battler Fight for Olympus, which I’ve also reviewed for this site. It has a Greek mythological theme that sticks closer to the original sources than Iliad does, but doesn’t support more than two players. Still, if you’re interested in Iliad, you should definitely check out Fight for Olympus, too.