Hoplite Review: Not your Sister’s Sarissa

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Hoplite review by GMT Games
Hoplite by GMT Games

Have you ever wondered what 20,000 Hoplites running towards you sounds like?  Is the Earth rumbling beneath your feet?  Can you hold you position in the shield wall or will you break and flee, exposing your friends and fellow soldiers to the slaughter that will soon follow?

Hoplite is a wargame depicting warfare in the Greco-Persian Age(4th-5th Century BC) designed by Mark Herman and Richard Berg.  The game is part of the “Great Battles of History” series of games published by GMT Games.  I would rate Hoplite’s complexity as medium-low as compared to other wargames.  If you were to compare it on a spectrum of all games it would be heavy.  The goal of Hoplite is to make your appointment withdraw from the battlefield by eliminating enough units that your opponent reaches of exceeds their withdrawal level, which will vary based on the scenario you are playing.

My personal experience with the GBOH system started with Devil’s Horsemen–a game which covers the Mongol war machine in the 13th Century.  The first time I played that game I felt it was bland and did not depict the period very well at all.  I struggled with the fact that every unit would run up to their target, shoot it, deal 1 cohesion point, and either run away or stand there.  Most units have 5-7 cohesion points so it felt like every unit action was just a little tap on the shoulder of their target.  The game did not feel exciting and didn’t generate images of hordes of swirling horse archers surrounding helpless infantry.  This is not a review of that game because despite my negative initial impressions I feel I was not ready to tackle it at that point in my wargaming career.  I was just getting into wargaming then and probably left out 500 rules or screwed another 10.  I am determined to give it another shot since having cut my teeth on other games and I have a feeling I will enjoy much more this time around.

Ancients wargames are certainly less popular among wargamers then say WW2 or Napoleonic’s.  The battles can feel stale and lacking tactics/strategy at times and the lack of solid or abundant information about the time period and conflicts/battles can be bothersome.  I personally find Ancients to my preferred time period with the exception of the Thirty Years War(I don’t think that even counts as Ancients?).  There is a certain poetry and splendor about seeing two giant rectangles of men shimmering in armor, baking under the midday sun and armed to the teeth, staring down their opponents just waiting for hell on earth to be unleashed.

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Hoplites from Athens and Sparta face off

Learning the Game

Learning Hoplite is, on the whole, a fairly easy affair.  While I would not recommend the game to new wargamers, an experienced wargamer should have no problem picking the system up.  Based on my research and limited experience, I would say it is the easiest and least complex of all the GBOH games.  War Galley might have something to say about that, as it is a Naval only game, but I have not played it.  If you didn’t already know, there is a simplified rule-set for the GBOH series, called, ironically enough, Simple Great Battles of History.  The great thing about Hoplite, however, and one of the reasons I think it is the perfect entry point into the series, is that the standard rules come close to the Simple GBOH ones.  They are not the same, of course, but the gap is much less than in other titles.  For this reason, I really see no reason to play the game with the SGBOH rule-set, with the exception that if one wanted to Plataea, the biggest battle in the box, but wanted to save a bit of time–SGBOH could be useful for that.  That exception aside, I see no reason to not use the full rule-set, unless this is your very first wargame (hint:it shouldn’t be!).

The rulebook is sturdy and colorful.  I love the splash of color GMT has been adding the past few years to their rule and scenario books.  It doesn’t bring them up to Fantasy Flight level, but helps!

The design and play notes help you understand the why behind the rules.  The examples are clear and well placed.  The index on the back of the rulebook is organized and incredibly useful.

The thing that helps most with learning the game is the fact that the scenarios are varied in such a way that there are a number of low counter, low unit type, half or 1 map scenarios that are absolutely phenomenal for learning the game and the system.  A good chunk of the rulebook need not be learned up front if you are starting with a small Hoplite v Hoplite battle.  Skirmishers, chariot rules, cavalry charges, see ya later!

Another helpful thing is the fact that the rules are just flat out not that complicated or complex.  The two problems I foresee people struggling with is Shock Combat and Routing/TQ checks.  The way Hoplite phalanx units check for Rout and rout move is different then every other unit in the game and takes a couple reads to sink in.  The Shock Combat is not inherently difficult, just very procedural and obtuse.  Understanding the how and why of having to TQ check or not, the Superiority and weapon system charts, and the Combat Results Table does take some practice.  Once you bash a few shields together I think it all flows and make sense, but upon first read it through can throw up a “Huh?” or two.

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Mid battle at Mycale, Persian Archers are the new front line!

 Activation

Hoplite uses a different system than most GBOH games to handle activating units.  The system here is what gamers refer to as a “chit pull” system.  What that means is that each group of units, say the right, center, and left wings of each army each have a marker(chit) put into a cup.  Along with those markers each side will add a momentum marker which I will explain later.  Every turn of the game these markers are drawn one after the other and whatever unit or wing that is on the marker, is the one that activates when that marker is drawn.  Units can do 1 of three orders, or actions, on there turn.

  • The can move and fire, or recover cohesion hits if they do nothing else.
  • They can try to disengage if they are engaged.  Non-engaged units do nothing.
  • Routed units can attempt to rally.  Other units again do nothing.

The first of these actions will be what you are doing 90% of the time.  Performing these three actions is closely tied to leaders.  Each army typically has a Overall Command(OC).  This is the boss man.  He runs the show.  Each wing or section of the army will also have a Formation Commander(FC).  In order for a unit to operate with their full potential and effectiveness they want to stay within their leaders command range which is usually 4-9 hexes.  Leaders also have ratings that will help units rally and give bonuses in combat based on how capable a leader they are.

If the momentum chit is drawn this allows the side who owns it to attempt to activate a unit a second time or activate a unit for the first time this turn, but before their chit is drawn.  Some scenarios have alternative uses for the momentum chit, but this is its primary function.  This activation attempt is a die roll against a statistic of a leader.  If it fails, nothing happens.  Also, some mechanisms of the game only trigger when a unit moves twice–Hoplites will drift to the right if they move twice in a turn and some units will take more cohesion hits for moving twice in one turn.

When all the activation markers have been drawn, a cleanup type phase happens before the round restarts.  This cleanup phase is were markers are removed, units rout move, and players/sides check to see if they have won the battle.

Strengths

One of the best parts about Hoplite is how a battle that seems tidy and orderly can so quickly devolve into a giant swirling mass of chaos.  And that is awesome.  The reason I think that is awesome is because I imagine that is probably exactly how it was.  I can’t image a battlefield where 40,000 grown men with sharp metal objects are battling to the death while elephants and cavalry circle around them and arrows are flying overheard has any semblance of order or discipline.  Without radios or GPS, could your men even hear you if you yelled something at them?  Or could you even see the other side of the battlefield through all the dust kicked up?

On the surface many of the scenarios appear to be dull, predictable affairs.  But once you actually play the game, a lot of the decision making and tactical choices come out after the initial charge/shock combat is resolved.  Do you chase or pivot and try to pincer your enemy?  Is it worth it to try to rally my 3 routed units or let my 2 healthy ones charge and disperse their back line slingers harassing my cavalry?

Scenario diversity?  Got it.  The game comes with 11 battles to fight, but since Plataea and Mycale have two different ways to set up and play out the battle, it feels like the game has 13 scenarios.  As mentioned they range from the 500 counter, two map monster that is Plataea, to the ‘itty bitty learning scenario Tanagra–which has each side with 5 or 6 Hoplite phalanxes only.

Solitaire friendly?  Yes.  Chit pull activation and lack of hidden information are like music to a solo gamers ear.  There is no beat your own high score here, its come back with your shield, or on it.

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Persians turn the Greeks’ left flank

Is it Historically Accurate?

I am by no means an expert of this period of history…but I am a fan and a student.  To me, the game feels historic.  Or at least, historic enough.  To give you a second opinion on the matter I urge you to check out an intriguing post on BGG here.  The user asserts that Hoplite misses a key part of history because it fails to adequately show some of the innovations a famous Theban general made in a few of the game’s scenarios.  Since I have neither played the scenarios in questions or studied much of his innovations, I will not comment.  Also, I do not view games as simulations the way it sounds like the poster does.  For me, they are games first and they just happen to have a historic theme.  If the games were trying to be simulations, then using paper and cardboard is probably the least effective way to simulate something so complex.  Much better and easier results could be obtained using a computer.

For me, the main attraction to Hoplite was that it allowed me to play out some of the most famous battles in history.  Marathon and Plataea are arguably the two most famous battles in the box and the ones I played immediately after a quick learning game.  If I had to give an excuse for why this review is so late it is because Plataea took awhile to play.  But boy was it epic!

Sure, the fact that routing Hoplite phalanxes disappear rather then run to the edge like other units is odd.  But I can shrug it off and take solace in the fact that maybe a routing Hoplite unit is so ineffective and unable to regain its phalanx formation that it is basically gone anyway.  Or you can house-rule it.

The weapon system chart makes sense.  The fact that Light Archers cannot shock combat makes sense.  In reality archers aren’t using their arrows to stab people in the face in melee combat like Legolas would have you believe.

The One Rule

One of the most contentious and interesting rules in the entire game is “Hoplite Advance to Combat” rule.  This rule has players roll on a chart the first time a Hoplite(non-Spartan) moves toward an enemy unit.  A die roll will determine whether they are walking, running, or trotting.  Each state has positives and negatives and will give the unit a different speed.  I personally LOVE this rule because it helps to break up the neat orderly lines each army starts in and bring about the chaos more quickly.  However, I have seen and heard that some players do not like this rule in the slightest, or think it does not fit the history.  My suggestion is if you want a game where you pieces move exactly where you want them to and at the speed you want, try Pong.

This rule is tempered in certain instances such as units more than 9 hexes away in Plataea do not apply this rule till they are closer and Spartans do not use this rule at all(since they are professionals).  The game is aided by this rule as it helps to remind you that the non-Spartan Hoplites are NOT professionals by any means and are still able to defeat a numerically superior and more diverse Persia force in Marathon and Plataea and other battles.  The legend and allure of this period is exactly that previous sentence and the game lets you experience for yourself.

Weaknesses

I am struggling to find many weaknesses with Hoplite but it must be said that, depending on the battle, the game can take a while to set up.  The game is also slightly different then other games in the series, so while I recommend it to new GBOH players, you will need to adjust your frame of reference and learn some new rules for other eras/games.  These, however, are very minor quibbles and Hoplite is easily in my top 10 solitaire games of all time.

Final Thoughts For My Hoplite Review

Overall, Hoplite is one of my favorite wargames and a very strong solitaire/solo game due to its chit pull activation system and lack of hidden information.  While I do feel that an interest, even if minor, for the time period is required to enjoy the game, if such interest exists, you will be in good hands with Hoplite.  The diversity of battles, the easy to learn rule-set, the overall amount of value in the box is outstanding.  I highly recommend Hoplite as the gateway game into the GBOH series, and as a next step up game for Wargamers.  I feel if someone has mastered something like Combat Commander or Conflict of Heroes and are interested in Ancients, Hoplite will serve them very well indeed.

Have you played Hoplite?  Interested in getting it after this review?  Let me know in the comments below!

(P.S. yes… I know some of the units in the game didn’t use Sarissas in real life, it is just a catchy title.)

3 COMMENTS

  1. This is a great review. After reading your review, I will be adding this game to my wishlist.

    Thanks for taking the time to put this together and sharing it.

    Sean

  2. Great write up. Love this title. One thing that is a bit frustrating is the Rout rule for Phalanx’s versus other units. Some players have elected to house rule that.

    Alan Ray does a great job supporting the game but we seem to be languishing at least on BGG for clarity on a few topics.

    Keep up the great work!

    • Thanks for the kind words Kev. It really is a great game despite the rules issues. I am excited for the next GBOH game on the Aztecs, that should be a interesting subject as I am not sure how much info is out there vs designer speculation.

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