JUST ASK PHORMIO (or “how to teach Pericles”)

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Back when I was young and I could count the number of games I owned on one hand with fingers left over, we all read the rules on how to play our games. However, times have changed. I now own a ridiculous number of games, and when I get together with friends it seems we are almost always playing a game that only one person has played before. As such, teaching games has become a more important skill than I believe it was in the past.

Although the game has thankfully received many kind words from players and reviewers, a few of the ambivalent reviews of Pericles have made two points. First, that the game is more complex than the average Euro-gamer can tolerate. Second, that it requires a dedicated group to become proficient at the game, and unless you are willing to put in the time, beware. With all due respect to these respected reviewers, I believe that they have lost the forest for the trees.

What I am going to do in this short article is offer a very simple method for teaching Pericles. Using this method, you can play Pericles often or sporadically and still play well. I have been playing wargames for over half a century, so I think I have earned my stripes enough to know a mechanically simple game with complex strategy from a complex game with complex strategy. Pericles is the former, so mechanically it is fairly straightforward, but understanding what to do is where the fun lies. For a reviewer who plays a game once, though, the game’s deep strategies are the source of their view of complexity.

Phormio Strategy AI and Matrices

My method is to teach mechanics and use the Phormio Strategy AI to handle the strategy decisions until you are more familiar with the game. I would add that it is the Phormio Strategy matrices that belie the notion that you have to have a dedicated group slaving over the game to play well and have a good time. Herein are my thoughts on how to teach Pericles in a step-by-step manner.

Player Training (Playbook 14.01)

The first words in the playbook are: Before playing one of the main scenarios I suggest that you play several short scenarios. Now if you are in a hurry, the normal thought is to ignore this and just plunge in. If I am playing a game solo, that works fine, but I believe it can be aggravating to a group sitting around going through the motions of a situation that they do not yet understand. Sometimes going slower gets you to your destination faster.

Pericles has two distinct areas of competition: political and military, hence why I call it a Pol-Mil game. The Political portion of the game is for your team to generate issues that you can then implement during the subsequent military aspect of the game. What I am going to propose is a method to teach four people the basics of Pericles in about an hour. All of that time is spent playing the game and not listening to a rules lecture, so it counts as playing the game.

As a caveat, this ~1 hour timeframe assumes that someone has organized the game pieces and punched out the counters. It further assumes that one player has read the rules once and everyone is shown how to read the cards.

Phase 1: War with Words (10 minutes)

Conduct 14.01 A and B to be played simultaneously. This has you deal out the cards for both sides to learn the debate mechanic. What is going to play out is the Athenian players will play the Ostracism of Thucydides (14.1.01 B) scenario while the Spartans in parallel will play Sparta Declares War (14.1.06 B). Each player should have their cardboard shield in front of him or her so they can follow the sequence of play for a political phase.

  1. In both scenarios the Aristophanes card is preordained, so find the card and follow its instructions per the special rules.
  2. Each player is dealt 9 cards, with a few cards in both scenarios set by the instructions, to which is added each player’s faction leader card.
  3. Set three cards aside for an Entourage, but ignore the rule for this time.
  4. Players pick issues.
  5. Players alternate designating an issue and simultaneously playing one card.
  6. Compare the card values and move the issue toward the player with the higher total a number of spaces equal to the card value differential (larger card value from smaller card value, if zero, no move).
  7. Remember all issues, regardless of where they are, can be chosen to be debated.
  8. Repeat until you have each played six cards.
  9. Add up the values of the space the issues reside on, take into account the scenario special rule, and declare a winner for each side.

There are a few details that we will skip for now, such as Favor of the Assembly and Entourage, but essentially that is how the political phase works. In a full scenario, the issues that have been won would be the ones that a player would use during the Theater phase (Military) to make things happen.

Phase 2: War with Spears (20 minutes)

We are now going to play the Battle for Central Greece (14.1.1A). This scenario only uses the four Theaters of Sparta, Athens, Isthmus of Corinth, and Boeotia. You only set up the pieces that appear on the set up chart for those 4 locations and ignore the rest. Each player is given a number of issues in their side’s color. In a full up scenario you would have won issues during the political phase that you would have then substituted for your markers. Now do the following:

  1. In secret discussion, each faction for a side chooses either the Isthmus of Corinth or Boeotia as their Theater of responsibility.
  2. Using the issues given in the scenario instructions, each of the players will place all of their issues in their agreed upon Theater of responsibility. Place the issues in any order you want; it’s not really important for the first go.
  3. The Aristocrats and the Agiad factions have to each place one military issue in their home Theater (Athens and Sparta respectively); otherwise all their remaining issues are placed in their theater of responsibility.
  4. Once all issues are placed, follow the same order and reveal them one at a time and resolve them. The Play Aid tells you how each issue works.

This should take about 20 minutes, but it could take a bit longer because this is the first time you are moving pieces and conducting battles. I do have an important piece of advice. For each issue, use the Phormio decision charts for the issue in question. Play the issue out as if you were Phormio. This will take you through any issue in a logical formatted manner that should make it clear on how to implement the issue. I think this will get you through this scenario without too much trouble, and should make understanding what is happening much easier to digest.

After you finish this scenario, you are now ready to play the two-turn tournament scenario. You could follow the rest of the learning scenarios, but from experience you should be able to handle a full two turn scenario as long as you use my most important teaching aid, Phormio. I would advise that for your first few sessions, or if you have not played for a bit, you should always default back to the Archidamian War scenario. Playing time for this scenario should be under 2 hours, but could be a bit longer the first time through.

Archidamian War (14.1.06 A)

Archidamian War Scenario

The main and most important piece of advice here is to follow the sequence of play. You will note that in this scenario, the Aristophanes card is predetermined, so fish out this card and implement its instructions, then continue on into the remainder of the political phase.

What makes a game endlessly replayable and, as Thucydides said, “a possession for all time”, is whether it allows for deep strategic play. The problem with this is proficiency usually requires effort and interest to achieve. Let’s face it: in a world where on average literally hundreds of games are published each month, you really have to have passion for a game to put in that kind of effort. I believe this is the source of the comments from reviewers who played the game once (or twice) and judged it too hard for them. I believe this demonstrates old school thinking and lacks imagination, because I already did the work for everyone. Pericles comes with an extensive AI (artificial intelligence) system called Phormio.

So here is the heart of my teaching method: hire a consultant. Whether this is your first game, or you haven’t played in a bit but feel that it’s too much effort to play on the fly well, ASK PHORMIO, your personal defense consultant. So, here is how I would proceed.

At this point, set up the scenario. You will note that the Spartan players are going to reprise the political phase that they practiced on 30 minutes ago, so this is now familiar ground for that side.

  1. Conduct the Political Phase that generates each faction winning issues. If you follow the sequence of play literally, you will award ovation honor, determine control of the government, assess the favor of the assembly, and hand out Strategy Board Strategos. Just remember to go step by step.
  2. Each player will take their won issues and immediately implement some (e.g., War/Peace) with all of the military, diplomatic, league, and oracle issues being converted into the same issue with your personal color plus your two rumor markers.
  3. Before you place any issues in the Theater phase, do the following:
    1. Each faction should examine the Phormio Strategy matrix for their side and, in a discussion with your faction teammate, pick one line on the matrix that you are responsible for and the theater where you will implement that strategy. Note that the second column in the matrix gives a title to each strategy, so this is good shorthand for what it is intended to be accomplished.
    2. In case you do not have all of the pieces for a given strategy, you should note that the oracle issue is a nice to have, but not essential to any particular strategy.
  4. Pick different theaters that would appear to help your side, but in case this is your first game, each faction should focus on these Theaters.
    1. Aristocrats: Chalcidice
    2. Demagogues: Aetolia
    3. Eurypontid: Boeotia
    4. Agiad: Amphipolis
  5. Now using the strategy matrix instructions, place the theater issues into queues. Extra issues can be placed randomly, or make a choice and see what happens.
  6. Resolve all of the issue queues one at a time. Use the play aid to understand what each issue does, and use the decision matrices to ensure you understand all of your choices.
  7. Redeployment Phase: pull all units into advantageous locations, but when in doubt move everyone to somewhere with a base and overprotect your city state theater.
  8. Play turn two, the training wheels are off, but continue to use Phormio to pick strategies and the tactics they require.

Concluding Thoughts

Hopefully, my method makes sense to you and will make teaching, playing, and enjoying the game easier. I put a great deal of effort into lowering the barriers to entry, so please avail yourself of the built-in tools and logic.

Pericles is an historical wargame. Knowing the history and the military narrative is an advantage. That is what makes it an historical wargame: the fact that knowing history matters. However, another benefit of an historical wargame is it can also teach history. I designed Pericles to do both.

The Phormio AI system (‘Bot) is indeed a mechanic to play solo. More importantly, though, it is a path to lower the barrier to superior play, and for coming up to speed quickly if you have not played in a while. As I said, there are a large number of games out there, but very few that come with a well-researched historical strategy consultant.

Back in 415 BC, Alcibiades jumped bail to avoid a capital crimes trial and offered his services to Sparta. Whether this is your first game of Pericles or you have not played in a while, use the Phormio AI system to advise you as if Alcibiades was sitting by your shoulder. It worked for the Spartans, and it will work for you. In this way, you can have Pericles as a regular game in your rotation without the concern that you haven’t played it enough to play well. Just ASK PHORMIO.


Mark Herman

Fortress of Solitude

Note: All photos of Pericles shown in this article were taken by Scott Mansfield. Thanks Scott!!

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4 thoughts on “JUST ASK PHORMIO (or “how to teach Pericles”)

  1. I cannot agree with this enough! I’ll admit that when we first tried out the game we set up the full campaign and just started, after my rules explanation (I’m the guy who reads the rules). But, we each grabbed a Phormio player aid card to see what the AI would do to help guide us. Although a couple of us had played games with the “last-in-first-out” mechanic before, a couple hadn’t. We were all experienced gamers and had all played Churchill which lessen the learning curve, at least on the political phase portion of the game. The explanation on the Phormio card regarding the execution of strategies and placing of issues was incredibly helpful. I have also seen people use this method (checking what the AI would do) in COIN games; particularly when they aren’t familiar with the history of the conflict and just don’t know what to do. Great advice!

  2. Well written and super advice (especially about doing the learning scenarios FIRST)! In my case, my best teacher was my own mistakes!!