Atlas & Zeus was designed by the popular French designer Bruno Cathala and published in 2004 by Eurogames as part of their Games for 2 series. It is a light, quick battle of wits in which the players fight to be the last man standing as the islands of a doomed Atlantean archipelago fall into the depths. I picked up my copy going cheap on eBay a while ago and finally gave it a spin with Peter last week.
The 16 islands of the archipelago, represented by sturdy tiles, are arranged in a ring at the beginning of the game, with the players’ men (also represented, less successfully, as tiles) placed singularly on the islands. Since the islands and men are both randomly placed, the starting set-up will always be different, presenting a different challenge each time.
The players, representing the gods Atlas and Zeus, have matching decks of actions cards which they used during the game to move their men, attacking, defending and generally messing with their opponent’s plans in a somewhat capricious god-like fashion. After each round one of the islands will succumb to the creeping catastrophe and sink into the sea (that is, the tile will be removed!) and it will take whatever men are standing on the island at the time with it, removing them from the game also. So the game is a speedy war of attrition, and whoever survives longest, takes the victory.
The core of the game is a track of six numbered spaces on which the players place selected action cards (face-down) at the beginning of each round. The player with the ‘initiative’ goes first (the initiative automatically alternates each round), and places three cards from a hand of six. The player must place one card into the first pair of spaces (1 & 2), one into the middle pair (3 & 4) and one into the final pair (5 & 6); in each case he may choose freely which of the pair of spaces to occupy. Then his opponent fills the gaps with three cards of his own. The process creates a ‘program’ of actions which will be taken in order by the players during the round.
This mechanism is smarter and more balanced than it might appear, since it soon becomes clear when playing the game that the first and last spaces are the most influential, and if the initiative player occupies them both he will always create an opportunity for his opponent to place two consecutive actions, which can be an equally powerful play.
So, the initiative player has a choice: go for broke and leave himself open to a coordinated attack, or play it safe and commensurately reduce his opponent’s tactical advantage? It’s a really clever balancing mechanism that is hard-coded into the rules, but never explicitly stated. Certainly, I didn’t see it until I played the game.
There are a good range of action cards, some of which do not immediately reveal their utility to the first-timer. As with all card games, the luck of the draw means that some cards may turn up either too early or too late to be particularly effective, but the range of possible combinations helps to balance this.
However, some combinations are undoubtably more powerful than others, so simple bad luck could stymy even the most strategic of players. And this is probably a good thing, since the game is clearly intended to be a light snack not a three-course meal.
The only real flaw in the components is the way the players’ men are, as I said, repesented by tiles. It seems clear to me that this was a cost-saving move on the part of the publishers, since the gamplay would definitely have been more successful if these were plastic or wooden miniatures. (Surely that is how the designer would have originally conceived the game?)
Simply moving the men is fiddly, and placing them fully on the island tiles (as the rules suggest) means that the island artwork is covered up. This isn’t just a waste of good artwork, it also conceals the visual cues about which island is which — is that a volcano? where are the sacred islands? — and makes the game significantly less fun by rendering the experience visually and physically less engaging than it would have been.
Overall Peter and I enjoyed the game — I narrowly won, but let’s not concern ourselves with such tawdry details here! — and repeated plays would definitely be rewarded, since a better knowledge of the cards and their interactions would create more interesting choices and tension. If you spot the game going cheap, as I did, and have both the motive and opportunity to enjoy light, breezy two-player games then do not hesitate to pick up a copy. The more serious gamer should probably look elsewehere for their god-like kicks.