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"Hoplite Battles - how to make them work?" Topic

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1,994 hits since 27 Dec 2017
©1994-2018 Bill Armintrout
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ScottS27 Dec 2017 4:44 p.m. PST

I've got a pile of Foundry Hoplites I bought many years ago after taking a particularly interesting course in the Peloponnesian War. It's a fascinating era, and I'd love to do something with those models.

But I can't help but think that from a wargame perspective tactical level phalanx warfare isn't all that interesting.

Different eras offer different challenges. Napoleonics, for example, gives you tactical decisions involving the interplay of infantry, artillery, and cavalry. Do you make your troops form squares to deal with cavalry? Do you roll up your cannon? Do you unleash your cavalry? More modern games offer even more options, from indirect-fire artillery to aircraft, from tanks to helos. They all make the battlefield move, forcing a commander to make decisions.

But phalanxes of hoplites? As near as I can tell it was "line up, move forward, and hope the other side breaks first."

That seems to be a letdown. Undoubtedly it was terrifying for the men involved, but from a wargaming perspective it seems like all I'd do is push the models forward then roll dice.

Please understand, this is NOT intended as an insult for anyone who is into this era. In fact, if you are, help me out. Tell me how you make your games fun. Inspire me to paint those hoplites!

USAFpilot27 Dec 2017 5:12 p.m. PST

That's the way I see it too. I would be interested in others comments.

kodiakblair27 Dec 2017 5:33 p.m. PST

Fella did a piece for the latest Slingshot on this very thing,used about 7 different rulebooks. Hate to say it but your grasp of tactics is close to the mark.
How it played under the different rules was where it mattered. Only read it last night but for the life of me can't recall which the fella preferred. Think it was Sword and Spear for the fatigue rule ? it differed from the others in that the longer a unit fought it's combat effectiveness dropped. Couple of the others,a unit could take 2 or 3 hits yet still fight at full strength.

Somebody with more info will drop in soon and I'll read read the piece tonight. If I post again tomorrow it'll no doubt have a completely different slant :-)

robert piepenbrink Supporting Member of TMP27 Dec 2017 5:48 p.m. PST

Take a look at Aelred Glidden's Sparta's Wars--very short, very simple, and Spartan, Corinthian and Athenian phalanxes were somewhat different. In at least one version, there was good reason to place your best troops on your right.

As a general rule, though, I think you're right: the armies lacked tactical flexibility, so you need to go for faster resolution once you've done set-up because you're not going to make a lot of decisions later in the battle.

nnascati Supporting Member of TMP27 Dec 2017 6:00 p.m. PST

ScottS, I basically with your post. Surprisingly, I've found DBA to give a pretty good simulation of Hoplite combat. The army lists give slight differences between the city states.

Gone Fishing27 Dec 2017 6:27 p.m. PST

This is the perennial question with hoplite warfare, isn't it – fascinating culture, colourful (if horrifying) war to set campaigns in, attractive armour – it's got it all…except tactical flexibility and "game" potential.

I can't really say more than that, except that I've heard several people who know the period well back the above recommendation – DBA is supposed to do quite a good job with hoplite warfare. It might be worth giving a try.

Leadjunky Supporting Member of TMP27 Dec 2017 6:41 p.m. PST

I think a lot of rules miss the mark with the roles of the support troops, especially peltasts. Most rules disallow missile fire into combat, but it is probably how missile troops provided support from the rear and flanks of the battleline. I haven't found a set of rules either.

Ragbones Supporting Member of TMP27 Dec 2017 6:58 p.m. PST

It's not miniatures but Bill Banks old board game, ‘Ancients,' has permitted me to explore, inexpensively, hoplite warfare in the Classical era.

lkmjbc327 Dec 2017 8:09 p.m. PST

DBA 3.0 does a good job with Hoplite warfare.

Joe Collins

Secsesh Supporting Member of TMP27 Dec 2017 8:40 p.m. PST

The Perfect Captain have a set of Hoplite-specific rules in their free offerings called Hoplomachia. I have never tried them but they look interesting – including pre-battle sacrifice, speeches, army lists for the many city states etc. They seem to encourage you to immerse yourself in the period.

MajorB28 Dec 2017 2:49 a.m. PST

Lost Battles by Phil Sabin handles hoplite warfare very well.

Prince Rupert of the Rhine28 Dec 2017 2:49 a.m. PST

I wrestle with similar issues on British dark age gaming in that the bulk of the big battles seem to be line up two big blocks of infantry and go straight at it victory goes to the side whose nerve lasts the longest which normally comes down to numbers.

In both cases I imagine the rules need a pre-battle phase where both generals pick their deployment and have a chance to raise the morale of their troops as high as possible.

Once the fighting starts the generals job is all but done other than to place himself self at the head of his troops and lead by example the rules then need to really represent the attrition of any infantry battle as both sides morale degrades gradually until one side breaks.

in that sort of game the pre-battle phase takes on a lot of importance as it sets up your success and failure in the coming battle.

Personal logo BigRedBat Sponsoring Member of TMP28 Dec 2017 3:29 a.m. PST

There's potentially quite a lot of variation within "line up, move forward, and hope the other side breaks first"

varying unit depths (Thebans megaphalanx, anyone?)
unit quality
drill (especially Spartans)
supports (peltasts, cavalry)
generalship and heroism
attacking in echelon
…and not to mention hoplite drift! :-)

No two hoplite battles ever need to be the same…


durecell Inactive Member28 Dec 2017 8:56 a.m. PST

There's potentially quite a lot of variation within "line up, move forward, and hope the other side breaks first"

While I agree with you that there is a lot of potential for variation I don't feel any of rules I've played capture that variation well.

I've mentioned below several thing that I'd like to see in rules and how they are usually handled in rules I've played. I've still not played many ancient rules and maybe some of the recommended rules do that but no-one explained in much detail why their recommendation does hoplite battles well.

Letting light troops like peltast seriously threaten unsupported hoplites. Instead of being either mediocre at evading and getting caught by hoplites or not effective enough at shooting so they get run off the board before achieving much.

Cavalry that is important for countering skirmishers, other cavalry and for exploiting weaknesses in the hoplite deployment rather than just a token unit you feel obligated to take.

The general is able try various hoplite formations and strategies like the Thebans at the Battle of Leuctra or take advantage of your hoplite's training and discipline like the Spartans at Battle of Nemea. Instead of just lining up at wide as possible and marching forward.

Skeptic28 Dec 2017 9:42 a.m. PST

That initial description of hoplite gaming resembles what I've seen for Crusades-era DBMM games!

Might a strategic, i.e. campaign, context make the battles more interesting because of what is at stake, what can be brought to the field, and what can be brought off of the field?

Personal logo BigRedBat Sponsoring Member of TMP28 Dec 2017 10:55 a.m. PST

The rules I mentioned are all in my "To the Strongest!" set; they work pretty well… at least delivering what I want from a hoplite battle. There can be a surprising amount of manoeuvre, especially when lights and cavalry are present.

PS the image is of Leuctra.

ScottS28 Dec 2017 11:01 a.m. PST

Those are beautiful, BigRedBat!

Prince Rupert of the Rhine28 Dec 2017 11:34 a.m. PST

Skeptic@ I kind of think a version of Peter Pigs AK-47 rules might work with a pre battle phase that adds and takes away from each army based on random pre battle events.

doug redshirt Inactive Member28 Dec 2017 11:47 a.m. PST

In the old Tactica, Thebes vs Sparta was one of the best match ups to play.

Trierarch28 Dec 2017 12:06 p.m. PST

The problem is that most real warfare prior to the Napoleonic wars is about lining them up and hoping for the best. One of the reasons generals were not too keen on battles unless convinced they had an advantage.

DBA 3 does a reasonable job of hoplite warfare, even if it ignores explicit troops quality and most pre-battle factors.

Hoplomachia is worth a close look as it does have rules for breakfast, sacrifices and lots of troop variations (and a campaign game).

The Peter Pig systems for prebattle activity would be another way of adding variety to the engagement (I would have thought the WotR or Samurai sets would have suited Dark Ages or Hoplite warfare better that AK47).


kodiakblair28 Dec 2017 2:24 p.m. PST

There was a set called simply "Hoplite Warfare" out in the early 80's,follow up was "Hellenistic Warfare". Only thing I remember,been on the shelf near 25 year, was right hand drift. If I recall correctly it was unavoidable.

Prince Alberts Revenge28 Dec 2017 9:43 p.m. PST

I hate the saying "it is what it is" but maybe Hoplite warfare fits this bill. The small nuances that would give victory to one side may be difficult to replicate in a rule set and and may not be anything that would allow the tabletop general to show his skills. Maybe something like Dux Bellorum would work well? The use of command points and marshaling one's impetus through them might work well.

Markconz28 Dec 2017 10:15 p.m. PST

It comes down to making the most of your advantages and minimising disadvantages in an asymmetrical match up, as two hoplite armies won't be exactly equal. E.g. quality of hoplites, proportion of light troops (and maybe cav), quality of generals potentially, nature of the ground fought over.

So if you've got some better quality troops but fewer numbers, where can you aim for a breakthrough before your flanks collapse? If you've got lower quality troops but greater numbers, can you hold long enough to attack weak flanks, or sack the camp maybe?
If you've got superior numbers of light troops, how can you best use them to inflict some attrition before the main lines clash, or delay part of the enemy force while you achieve local superiority somewhere else? How can you best threaten with cavalry – targeting light troops, outflanking?
Can you make a clever plan with good generals, or keep it simple enough with poor ones?
Add to this the challenge of making use of terrain. The enemy has the high ground, but if they remain in position the initiative for attacking goes to you, so threaten the flanks, and try and prevent their counter to this. If they have greater numbers of heavies, can I dominate the broken ground with lights and threaten the flanks of their attack? And so on.

Then there is also the random factor of how the battle evolves (even in equal situations), and how you can best exploit opportunities or shore up threats that develop as troops clash. Where to put the generals, where to allocate command inspiration/orders, when to hold back troops, and when to let them rush onwards.

There are still a good number of challenges in a hoplite battle in most rules I think. Yes it is ultimately about two phalanxes coming to a decision, but in most rules (I play DBA and ADLG), there are plenty of subtleties to it that keep it interesting.

Bindon Blood29 Dec 2017 8:37 a.m. PST

Would Dan Mersey's Dux Bellum be a good place to start? It's trying to depict a similar model of warfare (shieldwalls)

wrgmr129 Dec 2017 10:02 a.m. PST

We play Armati 2 and have had numerous hoplite battles. All have been fun games with either side having the possibility of winning.

barcah200129 Dec 2017 7:36 p.m. PST

I've played Hoplomakia for years and love the game for its detail and period specific feel. It's not beer and pretzels easy but I think it provides period flavor as well as any game system for any period— 6-8 different "nationalities" of hoplites plus differing types of lights, Persians, Thracian and early Balkan troops. Full color unit cards and markers, army lists, commanders ratings and a campaign system with scenarios. Lots of chrome that you can adopt or not as you wish. And it is all free!

jim197330 Dec 2017 12:34 a.m. PST

You can also download Stratiotika from The Perfect Captain, a campaign in northern Greece.


williamb30 Dec 2017 11:07 a.m. PST

efinitely read Phil Sabin\s Book "Lost Battles" For descriptions of the hoplite battles in it, how long they lasted, the difference in casualties between winners and losers, and fear of engaging Spartans and what happened when they disguised themselves.
Hoplomachia from the Perfect Captain link

ScottS08 Jan 2018 2:05 p.m. PST

The problem is that most real warfare prior to the Napoleonic wars is about lining them up and hoping for the best.

I dunno. Alexander's era doesn't seem like that. You've got a phalanx, to be sure, but you've also got the companion cavalry doing the "hammer and anvil" with them and a bunch of other types of troops for interest. You've also got different opponents, with Persians and Indians providing challenges.

Republican Rome is another era that seems more varied; you've got the "phalanx v. legion" matchup, each with different ways of fighting. There seems to be a lot more of an assortment of troops, tactical choices, etc.

Maybe I should sell those Hoplites and invest in some Aventine Romans.

Olivero10 Jan 2018 9:01 a.m. PST

IMHO desiging rules for Ancient Warfare / Napoleonic Warfare have to deal with a different kind of problem.

Whereas Ancient Wargaming is dealing (in most rules sets) with a great variety of troop types, Napoleonic Warfare is dealing with comparatively few different troop types. The result is, rules for ancient warfare must try to concentrate on the most important aspects of warfare (whatever those are) to handle the possible complexity when on the other hand rules covering Napoleonic warfare can and must focus on details (no offence meant).

When in a Napoleonic game the question is "do I unlimber the cannon" the question in an ancients game is "do I unleash the elephants?". Whether the elephants are of the african or indidan type is rarely (not "never") an issue, if they carry howdahs or not and how many soldiers are riding on their backs and how are they armed could all be modelled in the rules (and have been in the past) but are nowadays not longer represented in most rules, I believe (just as an example). The consequence of that need to strip down to essentials can be that battles between nearly identical armies may feel "bland", and not to let this happen is a singn of a good rules system, again IMHO.

P.S.: Does anyone know of an ancients rules system that distinguishes between bronze and iron weapons? Or between iron and steel?

Drocton16 Jan 2018 9:45 a.m. PST

The idea that hoplite warfare was tactically dull is simply wrong: a product of bad historiography made by people who have read too many articles and not the sources. It is mostly based on a mis-quotation of Herodotus that is supposed to be satyrical. It is not true that Greek commanders knew nothing better than to take their armies to the nearest plain to sort out things in the quickest possible way. That is a satyre of BAD Greek commanders. I would like to demonstrate but then I'm writing my own thing on it, don't want anyone to steal my precious ideas… : )
For a wargame reproduction, I can think of at least 10 features that were specifical of hoplite warfare and I doubt that any single system has them all.

ScottS16 Jan 2018 12:57 p.m. PST


I tend to look at wargames in terms of the decisions faced by players; as Olivero says, above, "do I unleash the elephants?"

If, say, I'm playing a modern game a small unit commander makes all kinds of decisions that can be recreated in a game format. Do I stay in place? Withdraw to better cover? Try to send a squad out to flank the enemy? Do I call for an air strike?

Once a hoplite phalanx has committed to battle – it is lined up and ready to go fight the enemy – what decisions does a unit commander make that can be modeled in a game that allow me to make interesting decisions?

sidley16 Jan 2018 5:04 p.m. PST

Why distinguish between iron and bronze? The quality of the two metals is very similar. Look at Chinese quality bronze weapons used in the Han dynasty, well within the Iron Age. Once they figured out proper smelting and forging techniques for iron, then iron dominated. Irons biggest advantage is that the ore is relatively common. Bronze is expensive because tin is relatively rare except in certain pockets around the world and disruption of the trade routes would impact on bronze production.

Re Hoplite rules, I remember a set of rules from the 80s called I think, Hoplite warfare with a second volume called Hellenistic warfare covering pikes etc. The core mechanic was that troops had 3 ratings. Morale, Fighting rating and manoeuvre/drill ability. So a Spartan Hoplite would be A9A for example and could easily turn to hit the flank of an enemy in one turn, whereas a normal citizen hoplites might take a couple of phases to turn. Also the army lists at the back of the rules were by city listing the unit types as a percentage, eg 0-45% citizen hoplites C6C etc You then made 10 percentile rolls and that was your army, just who bothered to turn up at the city muster. If anyone knows a link to a copy or pdf of those rules, I would love to read them again.

Personal logo BigRedBat Sponsoring Member of TMP17 Jan 2018 3:48 a.m. PST


"what decisions does a unit commander make that can be modeled in a game that allow me to make interesting decisions?"

Deployment decisions aside, the interest comes from where to advance and where to hold back; perhaps drifting the phalanx to the right to achieve a favourable line up or overlap. When the troops are locked in melee, which units should be activated to attack first, and which not at all. What should be done with uncommitted units (lights or cavalry, perhaps), whether they harass a flank or make a run for the enemy camp. When an enemy unit breaks, what the unit that breaks it does; rally, perhaps, or attempt to turn and if so which way.

There can be a surprising amount to think about…

sidley17 Jan 2018 3:58 a.m. PST

The major decision made in a Hoplite battle was deployment. Which contingent in which position and which flank to weight. The obvious example being Thebans pushing the left rather than the right. As for drift, my reading of the battles is that this was inevitable and hard to control.

Possible decisions during the battle would relate to the commander rather than the troops. Where he is positioned, does he fight in the front rank (the default status) or if he is back and trying to control things. A possible mechanism would be to lower the morale of the army if the strategos is NOT in the front line but he can control the troops better.

ScottS17 Jan 2018 10:46 a.m. PST


Decide how to deploy/line up your relatively homogeneous troops. Decide where to place your commander. Decide whether or not to advance.

I'm sorry, I'm really not trying to be dismissive or overly negative here, but that sounds like precious few decisions in a game. I don't know if I want to commit a few hundred hours of painting time for that. I'd rather do something like Republican Romans, where I have more decisions given the Roman three-line system, the different options available, etc.

Personal logo BigRedBat Sponsoring Member of TMP17 Jan 2018 4:43 p.m. PST

Whilst there is a certain austerity to battles fought largely with a single troop type, I've played dozens of hoplite games, many of them nail-biting experiences, and quite as exciting as the other battles I play in other ancient periods.

Before you dismiss, perhaps try a few games with borrowed or improvised minis?

Drocton17 Jan 2018 4:58 p.m. PST


Hoplite warfare was extremely varied. How did hoplites cope with enemy skirmishers (ekdromoi is the answer)? What about chariots? And cavalry? What about amphibious operations, sieges, street fighting?
All these scenarios are described by classical authors, I'm not inventing anything. In Herodotus you can find Spartan hoplites routed by Thessalian cavalry and Greek war chariots routed by Persian infantry (really: that's exactly what he says).
In sieges, classical Greeks used chemical warfare and even the first recorded instance of Greek fire.
Contrarily to the mainstream view, the typical hoplite battle did not end with the annihilation of one side but with both right wings routing the enemy left wing, and then maybe they fought again for the right of erecting a trophy.
You see: you've been deceived by bad historiography. Think about it: if it was really about sorting out the thing as quick as possible, why would generals always deploy on the right wing? They could take the center instead. There is no possible objection to this. Deploying on the right, both generals could often claim victory. Quite convenient if you're a politician.

ScottS18 Jan 2018 8:12 a.m. PST

You see: you've been deceived by bad historiography.

Can you recommend a source that's better?

Edit: Please note that I am not saying that hoplite on a personal level – as seen by an individual soldier – was uninteresting, obviously it wasn't. The same goes for the strategic level; I've read enough Herodotus to know that the campaigns were fascinating. I'm concerned with the, for lack of a better term, "general's view" here. Once the troops are lined up and sent forward, what meaningful decisions are made?

ScottS18 Jan 2018 2:45 p.m. PST

Okay, let me put this another way…

What am I getting with hoplites that I am not getting with, say, Republican Romans – from a gameplay perspective?

Personal logo BigRedBat Sponsoring Member of TMP19 Jan 2018 2:19 a.m. PST

Republican Romans form up in a big long line, in considerable depth, and march forwards; not unlike….

ScottS19 Jan 2018 8:18 a.m. PST

Even at the most basic level Republican Romans have different troop types beyond skirmishers – Hastati, Principes, Triarii. They deploy in a formation that is arranged differently than a single phalanx. They have the famous "line replacement" system, wherein troops attack then fall back through the formation behind them.

These provide me as a player with more options; I have to decide how to deploy elements relative to each other (as opposed to "in a single unit") and when to call for each line to attack and fall back. This makes for a more interesting game for me.

Personal logo BigRedBat Sponsoring Member of TMP19 Jan 2018 9:06 a.m. PST

Yes.. but in most battles the Romans form up and fight in a long line (although this is not often reflected on the wargaming table, where Roman sub units often zip around in all directions without much relation to historical tactics). The line exchange is interesting, but there can be a lot more manoeuvre in a hoplite battle, especially if Epaminondas is involved.

ScottS19 Jan 2018 9:13 a.m. PST

I agree that most wargames tend to give the Roman units a bit too much maneuverability – personally I'm holding out for a game that hits the sweet spot there…

Maybe the answer with the hoplites, as has been suggested, is to look into smaller scale battles with different strategic situations…

Scarab Miniatures Ltd Inactive Member23 Jan 2018 8:47 a.m. PST

Over the years I have played dozens, if not into the hundreds, of Hoplite based games mainly using 'War & Conquest' (available here link where you can also find links to other info on the game), and like BigRedBat mentioned for his games of 'to the Strongest' many of the outcomes have come right down to the wire.

I have also refought Platea (among others) on several occasions and got good results from the game, currently the Persians have had the edge in the results but that's down to the Greek player ( me !!) losing a flank to the Persian cavalry too rapidly by making bad decisions!

As for meaningful decisions in a hoplite battle, well – you get plenty during the early phases of the game as you manoeuvre and prepare to commit. How to use the light troops and cavalry effectively can be key to victory or defeat.
Should you break a phalanx then there are other decisions – whether to follow up or hold etc. A headlong pursuit may open up your flanks to enemy attack.

Theres some pictures of one battle here link

So for myself, and those I play against, we thoroughly enjoy our hoplite battles and return to them regularly (and again like BigRedBat, I do play other ancient periods as well) – I am also fascinated by the Greek period in general, not just the warfare so I get a lot of reward from this particular period of interest

Anyway, just my thoughts – use or ignore!

kind regards
Rob Broom

DukeWacoan Supporting Member of TMP Fezian02 Feb 2018 8:30 a.m. PST

Look at The Perfect Captain Hoplomachia Rules for a real historical flavor. Still much pushing of pikes but much more as well.

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