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GMT Games:  Great Battles of History, Volume XV - Hoplite – Warfare in the Greco-Persian Age, 5th – 4th Century BC



ART DIRECTOR Rodger B. MacGowan
MAP ART Charles Kibler
COUNTER ART Mike Lemick, Charles Kibler, and Rodger B. MacGowan
PRODUCERS Gene Billingsley, Tony Curtis, Andy Lewis, Rodger MacGowan, Mark Simonitch

Price: $75.00

This latest offering from GMT games is the 15th in their Great Battles of History (GBOH) Series.  Hoplite examines warfare in the classical period, the heyday of the heavily armed and armoured city-state hoplite phalanx.  Eleven battles are included in the set, five of which pit Greeks against Persians; the remaining six cover Greek vs. Greek engagements.  Highlights are the battles of Marathon, Platea, Delium and Leuctra.

In typical GMT style the boxed-set is beautifully presented with three back-printed maps, four counter-sheets of combat units, leaders and game markers.  A double set of colour player-aid cards, a thirty page colour rules manual and forty-eight page scenario booklet complete the professional presentation.  Especially pleasing are the printed mini-maps accompanying each scenario showing starting troop deployments and terrain features.

Prior to examining the rules and game play a comment on the paucity of wargames covering this period is in order.  Put simply, wargaming classical Greek city-state hoplite warfare has not been seen as interesting enough for gaming companies to invest the requisite resources.  The reason is straightforward enough – literally; hoplite phalangeal warfare from the 7th though 5th centuries BC is purely linear.  Battlefields were flat plains bounded by rough terrain, command is rudimentary, there are no reserves, no oblique fronts, cavalry are insignificant as are light-armed troops.  Commanders decide the depth and thereby the frontage of the phalanx, place their best troops on the right flank and engage their similarly disposed opponents in a straight-up linear clash.

So, how have GMT made this period interesting for the wargamer?  First-off they examine Greek vs. Persian warfare, contrasting the fluid, missile-armed and highly mobile style of ‘Eastern’ warfare against the stolid city-state hoplite phalanx.  Secondly, the set covers the rise of Thebes and the attendant eclipse of Sparta attributable to Theban innovations in utilisation of the oblique order and marked increases in phalangeal depth, not to mention switching their best troops to the left flank.  The remaining battles cover classical, essentially linear, engagements taken from the 5th century Peloponnesian Wars and the early 4th century Corinthian war.  In these engagements the game designers have dipped their collective toes into the ongoing controversy surrounding the nature of hoplite warfare. 

There are two schools of thought, the orthodox and revisionist.  The orthodox school posits dense phalangeal formations, a one yard frontage per man with the rear ranks ‘pushing’ their comrades in front with the aim of literally shoving their opponents off the field.  The revisionist school on the other hand, view hoplite warfare as more fluid with a very gradual development from the ‘Homeric’ style of combat.  Here we see 2 yard frontages per man, the front rankers engaging in individual combat, the rear rankers serving to fill in the gaps caused by casualties.  In addition, they see a role for skirmishing troops interspersed with the hoplites.  The game designers have provided counters for both styles of warfare - double sized hoplite tiles for the orthodox view which are broken down into two smaller tiles for the revisionist with the added ability to ‘stack’ with skirmisher units.

Gamers familiar with the GBOH series should be warned that there are significant changes to the rules to reflect the more basic level of command and control seen in this era and to reflect the nature of hoplite warfare.  These will become apparent in the following overview.

The sequence of play for each turn is broken down in to discrete phases:

The initiative phase, activation phase, orders phase (covering movement and missile fire followed by shock combat), the rout, remove, replace and reload phase and finally the withdrawal phase.  Initiative is determined by a d10 modified by the OC’s initiative.  The winning player, in a significant departure from previous games in the series, selects an activation marker for a specific command.  All remaining activation markers of both sides are placed in an opaque cup for subsequent random draw.  Therefore, the turn sequence is randomised; the addition of a momentum chit which allows for 2nd activations adds further fog of war.  The characteristic GBOH ‘trump’ option whereby play sequence is reversed by the ‘trumper’ is retained but greatly simplified.

Units are grouped into commands, each having a commander whose command range rating determines how far units can be from his location without being penalised for being out of command.  This is another major change to the GBOH series – there are no line commands and individual orders in Hoplite

Combat units are rated for Tactical Quality (TQ) and movement rate in addition to being classified by troop type.  A strength rating is absent, the counters being taken to represent relative as opposed to absolute strengths.  Therefore, an orthodox phalanx counter is size two compared to a single tile unit which is size one (the monstrous Theban phalanx, 50 ranks deep, is size four).  TQ reflects not only unit training, tactical doctrine and cohesion, but also phalangeal frontage - a nice example of integrating period flavour without overly burdening the gamer with additional ratings or game markers.

Movement mechanics are straight-forward with cohesion penalties incurred for overtly difficult manoeuvres, such as wheeling a double-sized phalanx.  Hoplite movement rates are determined by a DR, with resultant walk, trot or run results.  Furthermore, reflecting the farmer-militia nature of city-state hoplites, once a phalanx has been given the order to advance it must do so at maximal movement allowance until it engages an enemy unit.  The notable exceptions, of course, are the disciplined and professional Spartans.

Missile combat is straightforward with special rules to accommodate harassment and dispersal.  This is the main weapon for the Persian player – erosion of hoplite cohesion through sustained missile fire.

Combat is based on a comparative weapons/armour and troop type superiority matrix.  In keeping with the period, engagements are rapid and bloody with units rapidly losing cohesion and routing unless a commander can successfully order the unit to disengage.  Rallying is, as is should be, extraordinarily difficult.  There is little recycling of broken units here. 

Rout points are awarded for units broken and once a player’s army reaches it withdrawal limit in rout points, the game is over.  As such, there are no battles with finite numbers of game turns – conflict continues until one side breaks.

In preparing this review I play-tested the battles of Mycale (479 BC) and Tanagra (457 BC).  The former being a Greek vs. Persian battle, the latter being a classic Greek-on-Greek affair of the 1st Peloponnesian war.  The games were highly enjoyable and had an excellent period flavour.  Being an orthodox fellow, I did not explore the more ‘loose’ phalangeal dispositions, and found that Tanagra, far from being a boring linear engagement, was made interesting by the asymmetrical command chit-pull system.  Variable phalanx speeds, Spartan discipline and critical decisions regarding disengagement all added to the playability.  Incidentally, in the former the Persians hammered the Greeks and in the latter a combination of fortunate chit pulls, a risky ‘Trump’ and better tactical discipline saw the Spartans narrowly defeat the numerically superior Athenians.

GMT have to be commended, I feel, for producing this excellent addition to their GBOH series.  This period is invariably overlooked by gamers, coming as it does a very poor third to the Macedonian and Punic wars.  GMT have demonstrated that wargaming classical hoplite linear warfare need not be a drudge but can be exciting and thoroughly engaging.  Let the othismos commence!

Andrew McConnell  (Guest reviewer)










© Chris Baylis 2011-2015