Hoplite – Boardgame Review
Hoplite: Warfare in the Persian-Hellenistic Age, 4th-5th Century BC, Volume 15 of The Great Battles Of History. Boardgame review. Published by GMT Games. Designed by Mark Herman and Richard Berg. US $75.00
Passed Inspection: Depth of tactical options, player aid charts are great helps, extension of award-winning system
Failed Basic: Command rules completely re-done
Sing, Goddess, the glory of Mark Herman’s design
It was back in early 1993 that I found a thin boxed game from a company I had never heard of before. Two designers named Mark Herman and Richard Berg had produced The Great Battles of Alexander for GMT Games, and since I enjoyed that period of history I decided to give the game a try. Twenty years have passed; those two designers have won tons of awards, GMT has become a mainstay of the wargaming hobby, and The Great Battles of Alexander morphed into a whole series of games, The Great Battles Of History. After having gone through the Roman Republic and Empire, Ottoman Turks, Mongol horsemen, and twice visiting feudal Japan, the Great Battles Of History in its fifteenth volume returns to its roots in more ways than one, giving us Greeks fighting other Greeks and (of course) Persians in Hoplite.
The boxes are definitely getting larger (the Alexander first edition I have is about a quarter of the size of Hoplite). Hoplite gives you four countersheets containing nearly 600 full-color counters; most are the industry standard 1/2 inch by 1/2 inch size for information markers and units, but about 120 are double-length (1-inch long) hoplite phalanxes, and there’s one supersized 1-inch by 3-inch phalanx counter for the Thebans, who aren’t messing around. GMT also provides several plastic bags for counter storage.
There are four 22 x 34-inch mapsheets printed on both sides, which allow you to fight all eleven battles included in this set. The Battle of Plataea requires two of the maps and is the most illustrated with terrain features, and the map for Marathon is likewise well rendered. Six of the battles (Ephesus, Tanagra, Leuctra, Cunaxa, Nemea, and Coronea) took place on primarily open terrain and so have only “blank” / clear hexes, with the latter three being larger battles using a full 22 x 34-inch side of one of the Plataea maps. The other battles included are Mycale, Delium, and Mantinea.
The game contains one rulesbook and one scenario book. Each player gets a set of charts; this includes the Game Turn and Rout Points card, two Standard Rules charts and tables folders, and one Simple Game charts and tables folder. Throw in a d10 and the little note from the GMT person who packed your game—a shout-out to Deb for the great job done on mine—and you are ready to dive into Classical Age warfare.
The units are a great and colorful mix of Greek and Persian troops. From peltasts and javelin-armed skirmishers to cavalry, chariots, and heavy infantry, if it could be found on ancient battlefields it’s found in Hoplite. Each military unit contains a nice illustration of a soldier, unit ID and command color (for set-up and to determine which troops go with which leaders), the Movement Rate, and a Troop Quality number which is the level of training, equipment, and esprit de corps possessed by those soldiers.
The Great Battles Of History series is built around the abilities and actions of individual leaders, but with Hoplite things have really changed since last I commanded a phalanx. There are two types of leaders. Each side gets an Overall Commander (called Army Commander in earlier editions) and a number of Formation Commanders / lieutenants who are given specific units (color-coded to match their leader) under their control. In previous games of this series all leaders had an Initiative Rating; now, only the Overall Commander has Initiative.
Each side has a number of Activation Chits keyed to the various commands / formations; so one battle might have chits for Spartan Hoplite and Greek Cavalry while another scenario has Persian Mede Infantry and Asiatic Infantry going up against Greek Right Center and Greek Left Center. There are also Momentum chits, one for each side. All of these Activation Chits are placed into a cup. One player begins the game turn with initiative (determined by the scenario) and can choose any formation he wants to activate, drawing its marker from the cup. After that, activations are random, with players drawing the chits and moving / attacking with whatever was drawn. Momentum chits allow the player to activate any formation, even one that already was activated this turn.
During an activation, the selected units can move and / or launch missile attacks; close combat (called Shock Combat in the rules) occurs after movement and is mandatory in most cases. Everything depends on leadership; only units in command (within the command range of either their Formation Commander or the Overall Commander) can act. Instead of movement and combat, an activated formation can be given orders by their leader to Disengage or Rally from rout.
Movement is straightforward (almost literally!), with units spending movement points based on terrain that they enter; since over half of the battles occur on flat (completely or mostly clear) terrain, movement is the easiest part of the game. Units have to face towards the vertex of a hex, and no stacking of combat units is allowed (a leader may be in the same hex as a combat unit). Some terrain will cause units to fall into disorder and can actually inflict damage (in the form of Cohesion Hits) on a unit, another reason why you’ll tend to keep your heavier units in clear terrain.
Hoplite introduces a unique element into the system with their Hoplite Advance To Combat rules. Since most hoplites weren’t well trained or disciplined, when they first move each individual hoplite unit has to be rolled for to see if it moves at its regular movement rate (trot), at a walk (one less movement point), or at a run (gaining one extra movement point). The unit keeps moving at this rate until it is adjacent to an enemy unit. The Spartans, professional soldiers that they are, are exempt from this rule, and some other units in specific scenarios are also exceptions. This is a great mechanism to show the problem of tactical control suffered by many of the Greek city-states and their citizen armies.
Combat is handled as in the earlier games in the series. For Missile Combat, use the attacker’s weapon and range—nothing more than three hexes—to determine your base roll; a unit with Simple Bows at a range of one hex will hit on a five or less. There are many, many modifiers to the die rolls; skirmishers firing on hoplites add three to their roll; attacking from higher terrain subtracts one from the roll; and so on. Basically, the lower the roll the better, and the “0″ on the d10 is read as a zero, not as a ten.
Shock Combat is resolved in a series of steps. First, the attacking unit must roll a d10 against its Troop Quality (TQ). If the roll is equal to or lower than the TQ, the attack goes off, but a roll above the TQ means the soldiers have second thoughts about charging towards men armed with pointy sticks, so no attack occurs. If the attackers succeed with their TQ check, the defenders have to roll against their TQ; a roll above their TQ means they really don’t want to be here any more and suffer a number of Cohesion Hits equal to the difference between their TQ and the roll.
Since we are on the cusp of the Heroic Age, leaders involved in the battle will now fight each other, with the possibility of one or both being wounded or even killed. After personal combat is resolved, the units will smash into each other. Compare the types of units fighting to determine which column on the Combat Results Table is used. A Hoplite Phalanx fighting another Hoplite Phalanx battles on the “7″ column, while Light Cavalry going after Skirmishers uses the “9″ column. In general, the higher the column number the worse it gets for the defender. The column used can be shifted for terrain (shifts left, in favor of the defender) and for numerical advantage—having two units against one shifts two columns in your favor, having three-on-one odds shifts it four columns, and so on.
After determining which column to use, roll the d10 and modify by leadership and whether hoplites advanced at the run into combat (giving them +2 to their roll). A higher die roll is best for the attacker, low die rolls are good news for the defender. Results are given as damage to the attacker / damage to the defender. Each point of damage is a Cohesion Hit, which you keep track of by placing numbered markers beneath the unit. Once a unit takes a number of hits equal to or greater than its TQ, it routs; chariots and skirmishers flee the field and are removed from play, hoplite phalanxes either begin rout movement or remain in place, all other units begin rout movement and retreat from the enemy.
There’s a lot of steps and double-checking—Wait, my chariot moved this turn so your infantry checks its TQ at +1 to the roll—but the rulesbook does a good job covering everything in sequence, and the player aid cards really provide good information at a glance. There’s a broad array of rules for specific situations such as Withdrawal, Reaction Fire, Dispersal, Cavalry Charge and Pursuit, even rules on Drift To The Right (if hoplite units are moved a second time in a game turn, they will move towards their right flank). The best way to overcome the game’s learning curve is to play through it; by the time you have two or three battles completed, the game has become a well-oiled machine that you are thoroughly comfortable with.
Not Your Grandfather’s Hoplites
Hold on there, grognard game player. You may have played the previous editions of this series, but in addition to the major shift in Initiative and Activations, there are dozens of small changes throughout the game. No Zones Of Control. Size of units is no longer given as in the previous games, so there’s one less number to worry about in combat resolution. The charts are littered with small adjustments to reflect more accurately Bronze Age warfare. Difference in numbers on the CRT, minor changes to terrain costs and cohesion effects. You’ll need those player aid cards as much as the new guy does.
Tucked away in the back of the scenario book are a series of optional rules, about four pages, that are changes to the Simple Great Battles Of History rules, the series rulesbook GMT has produced. Units regain Size and Zones of Control, and Formation Commanders are given their Initiative back. These rules bring Hoplite into line with the previous games in this system; however, you need the Simple GBOH rulesbook to utilize these rules changes. Hey, GMT, for seventy-five bucks could you include at least a B&W photocopy of the “standard” rulesbook?
I do miss the older command rules. Why is it that only the Overall Commander has Initiative? Why don’t all commanders have Initiative and game play goes in that order, leader by leader as in the previous games? I’m usually a fan of the chit draw method for turns (see one of my first reviews, Kawanakajima 1561, to see one of the best uses of this rule). But here, given that GMT already had an award-winning (and much copied) system for simulating command, I’m not sure why the change was made to Hoplite. Random chance of chit draws doesn’t re-create Bronze Age warfare better than the Leader Initiative system that’s served this series so well for over 20 years. It’s sort of like Elvis hitting the stage and belting out big band music.
But it would still be Elvis singing, and Hoplite is still one of the best games released this year. Rodger MacGowan’s artwork on the units and maps is up to his average, which is to say it is some of the best work in the industry. The core of the system remains and provides players a time machine to step back into the 5th century BC—a time machine with a good instruction manual. Even with the changed-up command rules, Hoplite is a top-flight simulation of pre-gunpowder warfare, with high production values and great tweaks to a solid system. Now if GMT’s next release is a companion to this game and gives us Trojan War battles drawn from the Iliad, the gaming hobby will be close to perfection.
Armchair General Rating: 91%
Solitaire Rating (1 is low, 5 is high): 3 (random chit draws make it easier to simulate “fog of war”)
About the Author
Sean Michael Stevenson is a writer from Pittsburgh. Currently seeking many stands of arms and tripods and talents of gold, when not playing at wargames he can be found reading books of history or heroic fantasy and writing the same.