Pericles: Strategy in the Archidamian War

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For me having a new design enter the gaming fray is like XMAS where everyone else gets to open the present. I opened a new copy yesterday to check that it was packed correctly and I was struck by that new game smell. I love that smell… far superior to what I usually smell in the NYC subway. As I have done in the past, I thought it would be helpful to pen a short piece on strategy beyond what is already well covered in the game’s playbook (page 35). I would also like to reiterate at this point that I strongly urge you, even if you have been gaming like myself for over 40 years, to make use of the games training regime (14.01). It will only take about an hour and the War in the Aegean scenario is quite fun, short, and interesting history. If you follow this sequence, you will come to 14.01 F, where you take the training wheels off and play a two turn scenario that I consider the tournament scenario for this game.

With that as preamble, the focus of this short piece is to present some strategy thoughts for the Archidamian War scenario (14.01.06 A) that also happens to be the opening for one of the three major scenarios in the game: the Second Peloponnesian War (14.3). I thought it would be interesting to have King Archidamus of Sparta explain the situation to you (Thucydides 1.80 [3] – 1.86).

Archidamian War Scenario

(Editor Note: references use the traditional organization of Thucydides into books and sections, so a reference such as 1.80 [3] can be found in Thucydides Book 1 Section 80, subsection 3).

Archidamus makes several points, the first of which is that in a struggle with another land power they can move swiftly to engage. However, Athens is a naval power where he states, “There we are inferior; while if we are to practice and become a match for them, time must intervene.” If you play the Spartan’s in the full 2nd Peloponnesian war scenario, this is the strategy you have to pursue. In the shorter Archidamian war scenario, you are only fighting the opening decade of the war, and I use J.E. Lendon’s perspective from “The Song of Wrath” – that this scenario is a contest of honor. So, unlike its longer cousin, this scenario will not score the economic (bases) and status of the relative leagues (geography control), but rather focus solely on honor as measured by battles, raids, and overall performance.

If you do a quick math count, which is easy as most pieces have strength of one with a few with strength of two (Athenian navy, Spartan army, and all bases), you discover the following. The Spartan army, not counting bases, starts with a total strength of 16, plus their Peloponnesian League land units of 10, with a maximum potential of 40 strength. The Athenians and the Delian League start with land strength of 17 that can be built up to a total of 20. The naval balance has the Athenian navy near maximum strength of 20, plus Delian League support of 4, versus an opening strength of 4 for Sparta. At maximum strength, the Spartan’s can rise to 12 versus an Athenian naval strength of 32.

Diagram found on Page 17 of the Pericles Playbook

The obvious question, “How could the Spartans ever win a naval victory?” was answered by Archidamus when he stated, “…time must intervene.” It takes playing the full campaign scenario using the Ravages of War rule (14.43), where half of all battle losses plus all plague attrition is permanent. The Spartans win the naval war by playing the long game with Persian gold to wear the Athenians down to their minimum size and parity. The Athenian disaster in Sicily accelerated this process. Now back to the opening balance of forces in the Archidamian war.

With the opening force strengths as context, we should now examine the geography of the war. The map is divided into 20 Theaters of war, plus Persia. Athens draws its grain supply from the Hellespont (Theater 13), whose capture by the Spartans won the historical war. This is usually how the Spartan’s win a campaign game. You should also note that the Hellespont can be reached overland; this is why Amphipolis (Theater 12) is so important. There are three other granary sources: Sicily, Sparta, and the East Mediterranean. The East Mediterranean (theater 20) is out of play due to the Peace of Callias. Maintaining an Athenian base in Sparta (Theater 6) is very difficult, leaving only Sicily (Theater 1) as a backup to the Hellespont.

Granary in Sicily

A critical tactic in the game is the rule that when a battle occurs in a land theater, there first occurs a mandatory land battle with the winner having the option to conduct a subsequent naval battle. The reverse applies in a naval theater, whereby first there is a mandatory naval battle, with the winner having the option to conduct a subsequent land battle (rule 9.4). The practical application of this rule is that Peloponnesian naval units need to spend most of their time in land theaters to avoid being forced into a naval battle. The reverse applies to the Athenians, who want to avoid having a large land force caught in a land theater where the Spartan army can get to them. The trick is how you time your moves so a force can move aggressively, accomplish their mission, and move off before an enemy response can catch them at a disadvantage. It is in mastering this choreography within the theater issue resolution mechanic where honor is gained or lost.

(Historical and Editors Note: There are many situations in Thucydides where there are military interactions that are small, violent, and have an impact on the war. In Pericles, battles occur even if there are no military units present as bases, Strategos, treachery markers, and even the random battle card create battle strength. It is possible to win a naval battle with no naval units present; the issue will be that you cannot cause any attrition without naval units. One of these chaotic military encounters is often important because it enables a subsequent naval or land battle in that theater. So, be sure to read the important player note on battles on page 23 of the Playbook.)

Isthmus of Corinth

Another important concept in the game is how land and naval pieces move (9.32), whereby when associated with a military expedition a piece can enter any Theater, but can only exit that Theater along a particular connection if their side is equal in relevant strength (land or naval, see map legend). The Isthmus of Corinth (Theater 5) is the geographical center of the universe for the Spartans. The ability of the Spartan army to go anywhere requires that Sparta control the Isthmus. At the beginning of the Archidamian war they control Corinth, allowing the Spartans to move north and south by land, with their ability to go East or West effectively blocked by naval forces in Athens (Theater 7) and their critical bases in Naupactus (Theater 4) and Corcyra (Theater 2). The Spartan situation is contrasted by Athens’ ability to go anywhere on the map with naval forces, but as mentioned earlier, they have to be cautious about getting their army exposed in land theaters.

Strategic Options

In the battle for honor, Sparta’s best path is how to force a land battle on Athens. The best opportunity for that is usually the contested Theaters of Boeotia (Theater 8) and Chalcidice (Theater 11) (forces from both sides present). This captures the ongoing crises (Theban surprise attack on Plataea and Siege of Potidaea) that started this war. Although Athens should avoid a head to head land clash, the Athenian navy is their best response. In order for a side to lose a base, it must decisively lose a battle (surplus losses) and have no surviving units (land or naval) in the theater, plus the attacker must have committed more Strategos tokens to the battle. If we look at Boeotia (Theater 8), the Spartans should try and attack before the Athenians can reinforce with any naval forces. Another solid move for Athens would be to reinforce the Chalcidice (Theater 11).

Pericles Game Map, for reference

There are several ways to reinforce a Theater. The most obvious is to resolve a military expedition in the Theater, sending forces to the theater before the enemy gets there with their forces. This raises two design points. My guess is many of you come to this game with a background in other games. This is a disadvantage if you try and apply your experience. This is an era of militia armies. I cover this point in detail in the game’s designer notes (Playbook page 38), but the implication of the history is there is no reaction movement, as you would see in a Roman era game with professional standing armies.

Therefore, if you want to reinforce a Theater, you need to get there before your opponent does or arrive later to counterattack. What you will experience at some point is one side sends in a large force and wins an overwhelming victory, cheers all around, but then finds that later in the Theater phase, the enemy shows up with a large force. Then things get interesting. The key to attacking and avoiding a counterattack is you have to time your arrival and departure before your opponent’s reply can arrive. Since this is all preplanned and secret, some really cool situations arise. I did not need a Sicilian expedition rule or any equivalent because this kind of thing arises organically. My best advice when things go bad is smile, as you did no better than the Athenians did when they lost the battles in Boeotia (Delium) or Sicily (Syracuse).

One of Sparta’s weak links is Sicily. I, like legions of other historians, have pored over the details of the Sicilian expedition and have come away with a sense that it was a near run thing. Sparta begins with a base and some forces in Sicily that are vulnerable to an Athenian expedition. At the beginning of the scenario, the Spartans do not have any realistic ability to directly send forces to Sicily. However, there are multiple ways to reinforce a location that do not require the actual movement of forces.

The League issue is an important tool in any strategy. A League issue allows you to either build/convert a base or muster local forces. Getting multiple League issues into Sicily could allow the Spartans to build a second base, followed by a muster of four land units. If you couple this with the original forces, this gives Sicily an on-map land strength of 10. If you couple that with a diplomatic issue that raises local forces, you now have a potent 13-strength bastion.

Boeotia is a much simpler problem to solve; just send in the Spartans. As the Athenians, you know that this is a likely option. Your best response is to get a couple of naval units there before the Lambdas arrive. You will lose a small land battle, but you will likely maintain your base. A similar situation prevails in Chalcidice, except it takes a few more forces to open up the path through Thessalia (Theater 9) to allow the armies passage. The Athenians have the same reinforcement options for Boeotia and Chalcidice as the Spartans have in Sicily, but taking on the Spartan army is not something anyone should take lightly.

Boeotia and Chalcidice

If you draw from this that Athens is disadvantaged, you would be incorrect because their strategy is that of a Thalassocracy (naval power). Honor can be gained in many ways. You will find in rule 10.12 the numerous ways that honor can be gained and lost. The most obvious is winning a battle. Beyond winning battles, you can gain honor for raids, building bases, winning the Games issue during peacetime, getting a sign from the gods via the Oracle, and causing enemy bases to convert to your side (revolt). The bottom line is Athens can focus on operating and improving their empire as a path to victory.

One thing you may find interesting about this game is sometimes the pen is mightier than the sword. Each turn begins with the revelation of a new Aristophanes card. It so happens that the first Aristophanes card for this particular scenario is set to be Clouds A putting the War/Peace issue into play. The second turn of this scenario reveals one of the other 23 cards that can cause anything from a Plague to a Will of Assembly event.

A few cards from the Aristophanes deck.

Will of Assembly events comprise half of the Aristophanes 24-card deck. They give each side an objective to accomplish in one of the Theaters on the map. If both sides succeed, then each faction gets 5 honor points, so no relative change in score. If both sides fail then all factions lose 5 honor and both sides are short 5 Strategos tokens on the next turn, again with no change in the relative scores. However, an asymmetric result with one side succeeding and the other failing provides a 20 honor point swing. One other fun factoid is four of the twelve Will of Assembly events send both sides to the same Theater, such as my all time favorite, the Sacred War (Boeotia). In Pericles, the respective assemblies do not supply free lunches.

After two turns of political debate and conflict, the side with the most honor wins the war and the faction of the winning side with the most honor wins the game. My strategy notes cover political tactics, so I will leave that for you to examine on your own. I think I will leave it here for now. I hope this gives you some ideas for your first full session with the game. Enjoy and I’ll see you all online.

Mark Herman

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2 thoughts on “Pericles: Strategy in the Archidamian War

  1. Cool! Can’t wait for the game to arrive to Russia (P500 preorder). While Churchill was a great and innovative design, but the era covered in Pericles is far more intriguing to me personally. Thanks Mark and GMT for the series of articles devoted to the game. They persuaded me to place P500 order