Lords of Hellas

A board game set in mythical Greece

A melding of ancient myth and science fiction, Lords of Hellas is an excellent, fast-paced board game with high production values.

Josho Brouwers

Ancient Greek mythology is a never-ending source of inspiration for artists, writers, and game designers. A recent entry in the field of board games inspired by the stories of the ancient Greeks is Lords of Hellas, designed by Adam Kwapiński, developed by Marcin Świerkot, and published by Awaken Realms. (Distribution throughout much of the world is handled by Asmodée.)

The rulebook sets the scene for the game:

With the fall of the Mycenaean Empire, the age-old might and culture of ancient Greece collapsed, and Hellas was mired in chaos and ruin. This period became a time that no chronicle would document. Amid disarray and death, a handful of chosen ones sought to restore law and order by assuming control over the fallen land. (…) Between the chosen ones, a great war began and its victor would become the sole ruler.

The use of “Mycenaean Empire” is no doubt a reference to Agamemnon’s kingdom, which in the Homeric epics is the most powerful of all kingdoms in heroic Greece. The game is set after the collapse of the kingdom, so presumably during the “Dark Age” of Greece. In the game, each player takes control of one of the “chosen ones” in the game, but they are all heroes from the time of the Trojan War or earlier (so before the “collapse”): Achilles and Helen, as well as Perseus and Perseus’ grandson (!), Heracles. That’s fine, though; it’s common for games to mix and match different characters and events from Greek mythology.

The rulebook goes on to state that “mysterious and technologically advanced beings” were drawn to Hellas as a result of the war between the different heroes and their armies. These beings “offered their support to the heroes, arming them with advanced weaponry of terrible power, and the Greeks soon came to worship them as gods.” The suggestion is that the deities are alien beings of some sort.

Indeed, Lords of Hellas sets itself apart from other games inspired by Greek mythology by making the gods, monsters, and heroes cybernetically enhanced. It gives the game a unique look, a mix between ancient and futuristic. Aside from adding to the game’s aesthetic, it has no relevance on gameplay: for all intents and purposes, the artists may just as well have represented everything in the game in a more traditional way.

Lords of Hellas is what is lovingly referred to as a “dudes on a map”-type of game. The ancestor of these types of strategy games is Risk, which I think most people will have played at some point in their lives. But it’s rather more complex than Risk, doesn’t necessarily focus on area control (unless you want it to), and offers much greater strategic variety. Indeed, the first time you read through the rulebook, you might feel a bit overwhelmed. But once you sit down to play, it’s surprisingly intuitive and quite quick to play, even if Awaken Realm’s suggested play time of 25 minutes per player is rather a bit optimistic: double that estimate if you play it for the first time.

Two or more players

Lords of Hellas is a game for 1 to 4 players. The solitaire play requires the use of a campaign book and I’ll deal with it further below. For now, I’ll focus on the regular game for 2 or more players. I won’t go into details, but you’ll need to setup the board, play initial events, put monsters and quests on the board, shuffle all of the cards, and so on. Each player has to pick a hero and then put all the warriors and priests of their selected colour in front of themselves.

The board features a map of ancient Greece, divided into different regions (like Elis, Laconia, Euboea), which in turn are grouped together into “lands”. Each land has a specific colour, indicated by the border. Asia Minor isn’t included on the map, and only parts of Crete and Euboea are visible. Dotted lines are drawn across bodies of water to connect regions on the mainland with the islands, indicating that these are adjacent to each other for the purposes of hero and troop movement.

Each region can also have one or more features. A shrine indicates that you can build a temple in this region. A city means that you can fortify the region by moving a warrior from the region into the city, adding to the region’s defence when attacked. Regions also have a strength indicator next to its name: this is a numeric value, indicating the total army strength required needed to take control of the region. Whenever you take control of a region, you’ll put a control marker of your colour on this value.

Quest cards are event cards that are drawn from the event deck at certain points in the game. Each quest card has an associated tile that is placed in the region indicated on the card. A hero may undertake a quest if they fulfill the card’s requirement. The “Amazon Queen” quest, for example, states that the hero must have a leadership value of 2. A hero can advance one slot per turn. If the hero were to have that value and the player also possessed a priest, he would immediately be placed on the second slot. If he had those stats and the player sacrificed (discarded) a priest, the hero would immediately complete the quest and gain the reward.

The board is beautiful and offers spaces for (almost) everything else that you need to play, including different decks of cards. The event cards are used to seed quests on the map that your hero can complete to improve themselves. The monster cards are used when your hero goes on a hunt (more about that later). Combat cards are used in combat and during hunts. Artefact cards are rewards that you can get. Blessing cards are powerful improvements that you can acquire that can give you powerful new abilities.

Each player is represented on the board by a particular hero. Every hero has a special ability and a starting bonus. Helen, for example, has a special ability that makes it impossible for rival players to invade a region that she is in unless that player’s hero is also in the region. If placed properly, she can effectively choke off a large part of the map. Her starting bonus is also powerful: you draw three artefact cards and pick one of them. Artefact cards confer a bonus on the player, like being able to draw a combat card before a battle.

The hero player board also lists the hero’s attributes. There are three of them: leadership, strength, and speed. Speed determines how many regions a hero may move in a single turn. Strength is needed to complete quests and hunt monsters. Leadership determines how many individual warriors the player can move in a single turn. You’ll upgrade these attributes over the course of the game. Your hero may also get wounded when hunting monsters: in such events, the token that tracks the attribute is flipped over, showing the number 1: this is an elegant way to keep track of stats and injuries in a game filled with elegant rules.

One of the heroes in the game is Achilles. Each player picks one hero and the associated hero board, which lists the special ability and starting bonus. Heroes normally only move from the board when they engage in a quest: this photo was taken right before the game started.

The game is played over an unlimited number of rounds, during which players take turns. During your turn, you’ll be able to perform any number of regular actions. There are four of these: you can use any number of artefacts in your possession (after which they have to be “charged” again), you can move your hero, you can move as many warriors from one region to another adjacent region as indicated by your hero’s leadership stat, and you can pray. With the latter action, you’ll send a priest from your player board’s “priest pool” to one of the monuments on the board.

The monuments are interesting. The base game has three of them, each dedicated to one of the gods: Zeus, Hermes, and Athena. These are large, beautifully-made plastic miniatures that are broken into smaller parts. At the start of the game, you’ll put the base of each of these monuments on the indicated positions on the map. The base has two small cups that can each hold a single priest. Putting a priest here allows you to activate a “god power” as indicated on the reference card, which usually includes improving one of your hero’s stats. Zeus emphasizes strength, Athena leadership, and Hermes speed.

After performing your regular actions, you can perform one “special action”, as indicated on your player board. When you pick a special action, you have to cover it with a token and cannot perform it again until the board has been refreshed. Special actions include: recruit (add troops to the board in regions with cities), march (move as many troops as you like from one region to an adjacent region), build a temple (in a region with a shrine), usurp (take over a region immediately if you have that region’s glory token), hunt (fight a monster in a region where your hero is present), or build a monument.

The plastic miniatures that come with the game are beautiful. This photo shows off the Hydra. Like all monsters, heroes, and divinities, the Hydra is a cybernetically-enhanced creature, even though it has zero effect on gameplay.

If you choose to build a monument, you add a level to the monument of your choice. This immediately resets all player’s special actions and also removes all priests from all monuments. Furthermore, the player who chose this action receives as many priests as he or she has regions with temples. These priests are put on the “priest pool” area of the player board: during a “prayer” regular action, one of them can be assigned to a monument. This player then has to roll the monster die for every monster on the board: the monster will move, perform a region attack (as specified on its monster board), or do nothing. Then, the top event card is flipped over and resolved, and the turn ends.

I’ve mentioned the monsters a few times now, but they do deserve a closer look. All of the monsters in the game are represented by absolutely wonderful-looking plastic miniatures. There’s a good variety of them, too, from the towering Cyclops to the Minotaur, from a Ray Harryhausen-inspired Medusa to Cerberus, and so on. Each of the monsters has an associated monster board with further details. At the start of the game, some of them will be placed on the board and a hero can “hunt” them when in the same region and by performing the “hunt” special action. This starts a kind of mini-game where the hero and the monster take turns playing combat cards, with the hero aiming to play cards that correspond to icons on the monster’s board to take it down.

These combat cards are also used in battles between players. Moving a hero into a region controlled by another player doesn’t lead to combat, but moving troops into another region occupied by another player’s forces does. Battles are very streamlined affairs: players compare their army strengths, which is mostly 1 point for every warrior figure, plus a bonus for troops that are fortified (i.e. located in a city). The defending player than has an option to play a combat card, which has a value that adds to their army’s strength.

Monster attack! If a hero goes on a hunt, another player will draw cards from the monster attack pile and pick which to play. The attack has a strength of 4: the player controlling the hero must play combat cards that equal or exceed this value, or suffer the effect of this card. The card’s effect would deal two injuries, which can be quite devastating. The red cubes on the left are used to track wounds on the monster’s board.

Players take turns playing cards until both pass: highest score wins. The losing player loses one unit and has to move to an adjacent friendly or neutral region if available; if no such region is available, the entire army is destroyed. You might think that battles are bloodless affairs, but this isn’t so: high-value combat cards have casualty icons in the lower right corner. Once the battle is over, you lose as many units as you have casualty icons on cards that you’ve played. Thus, it’s possible to win a battle, but have no troops left in a region. And since the defending player has to make the first choice whether to play a combat card, this means that the game favours the aggressor.

By now, you might be wondering how you can win the game. You don’t play for points; instead, there are four distinct ways to win. Once you’ve met the requirements for any one of these victory conditions, you immediately win the game. The first is to become the “lord of Hellas” by conquering two lands. Remember: a land is an area that consists of a number of regions of the same colour. In a three-player game, the blue land doesn’t count, whereas in a two-player game, you need to conquer three lands in order to claim victory.

The second way you can win the game is by being “favoured by the gods”. As soon as you control five regions that have temples in them, you win the game. Temples have to be built using a special action, and you can only add a temple to a region you control and one that already features a shrine. Still, in my experience, this has been the easiest victory condition to achieve, and it’s one that often sneaks up on you!

Each monster in the game gets its own board. It lists the monster’s special attack (triggered by playing monster attack cards), it’s region attack (triggered by rolling the monster die), and the reward a player gets for slaying the monster (in this case, an artefact called “Eye of Cyclops”). The spaces covering the picture of the monster are wound slots: you put red cubes in here if you damage the monster. To damage it, you must play combat cards that have the same icon as the wound slot. Some slots give bonuses to the player at the end of battle, even if the monster hasn’t been defeated. For example, if you inflict the wound in the blue space, you’d get a priest to put in your priest pool.

The third victory condition seems quite simple: all you have to do is slay three monsters with your hero. However, the monsters pack quite a punch, and you’ll need to upgrade your hero in order to stand a chance against them. Fortunately, even losing against a monster can still give you a bonus of some sort: often, hunting a monster will reward you with a priest or an artefact card even if your hero is forced to flee or otherwise abandon the hunt. Nevertheless, this is arguably the hardest victory condition to achieve.

Finally, there’s the “king of kings” victory condition. In two-player games, this victory condition is ignored, because it would be too easy to accomplish. The first player to control and hold a region with a fully-built monument for three turns, wins the game. As soon as a monument has been completed and you control the region it’s in, take out the “monument activation” card and put three used action tokens on it. From now on, every time you use a special action, take one of the tokens from this card. Once all tokens are gone, you win the game. This victory condition reminded me of the “wonder” victory in games like the original Age of Empires.

The state of the board near the end of a two-player game. The yellow player (Helen) is about to build the fifth and final temple in Crete, a region that features a shrine. The blue player (Achilles) had been focusing more on slaying monsters and completing quests.

Lords of Hellas has a lot of different parts and it can appear daunting, but when you sit down and play, it’s remarkable how smooth, how streamlined the entire experience is. I’m particularly impressed with how each of the different systems interlock. For example, building temples will net you priests during the “build monument” phase, which you can send out later to pray at the monuments, which improves your hero’s stats, allowing him/her to move further and/or do better when it comes to completing quests or slaying monsters. Each of these activities tie in directly to a victory condition of the game.

The solitaire experience

Not all board game enthusiasts will have a group ready and willing to play their games with them, forcing you to play on your own. In the past, this often meant either controlling two (or more) players by yourself, which can be difficult in games that have hidden information, or you’d have to come up with your own solitaire rules (or find them on a website like BoardGameGeek).

As gaming in general has become more widely accepted and the hobby has grown, game designers have also started to cater to people who want to be able to play by themselves sometimes. Lords of Hellas, in every sense the pinnacle of a modern board game, features special rules for solitaire play. And as with the rest of the game, the publisher has pulled out all the stops here.

If you want to play solo, you’ll have to flip over the board, where the same map has been printed, but with some additional elements specifically for this mode. For example, regions have arrows to show where monsters have to move during the monster die roll phase. Likewise, many of the cards have a tiny “1” symbol in one of the corners: before you begin play, you have to select these and put the other ones back in the box.

Solitaire play uses the same basic rules as the multiplayer game. However, you’ll be playing a very specific campaign in which you have to defend Greece against the invading Persians. The game comes with a dedicated campaign book, with events divided between two separate acts. There are some other differences compared to the regular game. You’ll use some additional components, such as a board that has a mobilization and an invasion track on it. You’ll also put all the monuments of the gods on the board fully built: the Persians will try to destroy them. Otherwise, the basic turn structure for the solo player is not too different from the regular game: you’ll still perform all of your regular actions and be able to perform a special action once per turn.

If you want to play the game on your own, you’ll need to use the campaign book that comes with the game. Cards are also marked with a “1” symbol to indicate that they can be used in this mode; all other cards are removed from play.

The first act ends in one of three ways. First, the act ends if the Persians reach Phocis and destroy the Oracle of Delphi. Secondly, the act ends if you manage to destroy all Persian forces, which means you’ve defeated the first wave. Thirdly, the act ends when the counter on the “invasion track” reaches the tenth and final space on the board. Act II then begins, which requires a bit of additional setup, but otherwise proceeds in more or less the same way as act I.

The Persians win – and you lose! – if they control two full lands, have completely destroyed a monument to the gods, or have placed their thirteenth control token on the board. You win if your victory token on the Persian invasion track reaches zero, if you have more regions under your control than the Persians when you’ve used your final used action token, or if you’ve removed all Persian control tokens from the board.

All in all, the solitaire experience is fun to play, but it does require frequent flipping back and forth through the campaign book, and it takes perhaps a bit too long for what it is. Still, it’s a good way to experience the game if you don’t have anyone around to play the regular game with, since most of the rules are exactly the same. They developers really put some effort into creating a solid experience for the lonely gamer, and they’re to be commended.

Closing thoughts

Lords of Hellas is a solid game. When I first read about it, I was afraid it would feel a bit disjointed. After all, you’ve got a hero on the board who can go on quests and hunt monsters, but you also push troops around on the board, and engage in the construction of monuments and temples. It could have been a mess, but it isn’t. I’m impressed with how all different parts fit together to form a cohesive, streamlined experience. The game’s theme and its mechanics also mesh beautifully.

Furthermore, the game is absolutely gorgeous to look at. The artwork on the board, the cards, and even in the booklets fits the game perfectly. The plastic miniatures are nicely designed and well sculpted. There was no need for the heroes, monsters, and deities to be cybernetically augmented, but it does give the game a unique look. The rulebook is also laid out well and it’s easy to quickly find what you’re looking for. The creators also made a video tutorial available to learn how to play.

A view of the game with all monuments to the gods (Hermes, Zeus, Athena) built for purposes of taking this shot. The photo was taken after the yellow player (Helen) had won the game. Note the combat cards in the discard pile: the blue player (Achilles) tried to defeat Helen in combat, but failed miserably!

Lords of Hellas is beautiful, and a delight to play. I cannot recommend it enough. As far as complexity goes, the game is fairly streamlined, but the amount of options available may be overwhelming for first-time players. It’s not as accessible as other modern “dudes on a map” games, like Nexus Ops or Clash of Rage. But once you get a handle on the game, it’s very intuitive to play, so it’s definitely worth getting to the table even with people who might not be ardent gamers.

For more information, check out the game’s webpage over on the Awaken Realms website. And as always, check out the game’s page over on the BoardGameGeek website for other reviews, discussions, videos, and more.