23rd Mar2018

‘Victory or Death: The Peloponnesian Wars’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

victory-death-box

As the second game in the Quartermaster General series, Victory or Death: The Peloponnesian Wars uses Ian Brody’s card-driven supply line system to replicate a tighter, smaller conflict than the original. As a result, Victory or Death brings with it a lower player count (four instead of six) and a few subtle tweaks to the way that cards are played, which changes the turn length a little, whilst retaining the relatively fast and free flowing style of the original.

Before I dive into too much detail however, it’s worth understanding a little bit about the Quartermaster General system that Victory or Death is based upon. Whilst both the original Quartermaster General and Victory or Death itself rapidly became firm favorites with both board and war game fans, they certainly straddle both genres and deliver a fairly unique experience that is worthy of explanation. The system itself is based on chasing victory points by controlling specific regions, defeating enemies in battle and by achieving the outcome described in certain status cards.

Such cards, as well as a myriad of others, drive both of these games by placing pieces on the board or by describing certain situations that players should strive to meet, at which point they may affect the score. What makes the Quartermaster General games quite different to most others is that once a piece is placed on the board, you don’t simply move it – it becomes part of a network of faction holdings known as a supply line. In Victory or Death: The Peloponnesian Wars, supply lines can be made up of cities, ships, land units and bribes, but breaking those lines is a critical part of any successful enemy strategy.

On that note, whilst Victory or Death supports up to four players, no matter how many people play, there will always be four factions in the game, aligned to the two warring alliances. On one side, the Spartans and the Corinthians represent the Oligarchs, whilst opposing them are Athens and the Delian League of minor City States. Each of these factions has a specific and asymmetrical deck of cards, plus a set of miniatures that represent their cities, armed forces and naval capability.

Broadly speaking, Sparta has the upper hand in terms of fighting on the land, whilst Athens has a similar advantage in relation to naval engagements and has the largest overall deck. Corinth has a balanced deck that can allow for an independent strategy that simply supports Sparta, but due to the strength of the Athenian deck, The Delian League must work to support an overall objective with feints, counterattacks and a little bit of trickery.

One of the first things you’ll come to realise about Victory or Death: The Peloponnesian Wars is that depending upon which faction you play as, the experience and strategic focus can vary quite dramatically. At the beginning of the game, each player draws seven cards (with an option to mulligan once) to form their deck. A good starting hand is crucial for all factions, but as always with card driven games, deciding what a good hand looks like is most definitely a nuance of the game.

Because Victory or Death: The Peloponnesian Wars is about victory points (and the first alliance of two factions to extend their lead to ten points or more wins immediately) then there can be a temptation to take a starting hand with lots of scoring options, but the more of these status cards an opening hand has, the less it has to actually affect the board. Luck (or bad luck) can be a factor in both the starting hand (even after mulligan) and in cards drawn thereafter, but because Victory or Death: The Peloponnesian Wars lasts about two hours per game, things will even out in time. I found that understanding each deck of cards in minute detail was perhaps the most challenging aspect of playing Victory or Death and in particular, teaching it. Only certain provinces will ever be worth victory points, but even once you have control of them, you’ll need the relevant status card to take advantage and score points. Similarly, when to use prepare cards to trap an opponent or to complete a supply line that might otherwise not be of any relevance to you.

On that note, the way supply lines work leads to some very interesting decision making. Should you want to blaze a trail from say Sparta to Athens, you’ll need to ensure that the hoplite that eventually launches that final attack is in supply from one of your cities. This usually involves setting up another city somewhere along the way, but it will also involve other hoplites and/or triremes between the start and end locations in order to ensure adequate cover. When a line is broken, the player who controls it will need to either resupply it (which can be difficult based on the cards in hand) or alternatively, burn a card, gain a bribe token (for a single turn only) and use it to plug the gap.

Failure to do so results in the loss of all units that are out of supply, which can result in the loss of a considerable amount of setup time and resource. There are certain allowances for supply lines traced via allied pieces as well, so in three or four player games, effective teamwork is absolutely essential. Another effect of the way that cards are drawn is that the action can take place in very different locations from one game to the next, which is strategically interesting because again, it can force very different tactical decisions.

All of the components in Victory or Death: The Peloponnesian Wars are of a high to very high standard. The board is robust and attractive, whilst the pieces that sit on it are of good quality with excellent detail for their size. The real stars of the show are the cards, which are of excellent stock, but more importantly feature some fantastic quotes, images and flavor text. As far as historically interesting board games are concerned, VoD has to be among the best when it comes to engaging written content. Most event cards relate to actual or at least inferred incidents from the documented accounts of the time, which is a fantastic way to bring life to the proceedings.

Whilst I found it challenging to initially get my head around (and especially to teach) I have ultimately found Victory or Death: The Peloponnesian Wars to be an excellent addition to my collection. As soon as you grasp that the cards really dictate everything about the game, the simplicity of play and tactical depth both start to become apparent. Two or four player games are undoubtedly the best, but three is also fine, especially if the solo player on one side is more experienced and is prepared to be the “dungeon master” and coach the others a bit. Ultimately, if I consider play time compared to satisfaction rating, I have to say that VoD is a really strong addition to any history buff’s collection.

***½  3.5/5

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