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My kingdom for a phalanx

“Is anyone in the tabletop space writing critical analysis or is everything still a buying guide?”

That question popped up in my Twitter feed* just as I was trying to write an introduction to this latest video. And it’s the same question I asked myself when I first started doing videos.

Ever since Internet video became widely available and then affordably producible, I’ve been excited about the possibilities for expanding the discussion about not just boardgames in general, but wargames in particular. However, the overwhelming majority of the videos I’ve seen have been of the “check out this game” variety, with stream-of-consciousness talk accompanied by unedited camera work, or the mystifying (to me) “unboxing video,” and even the well-produced game videos have been firmly in the review genre (with the “review” part being a brief, “I really liked the epic feel” comment after a clinical description of the game mechanics). And I found this tremendously disappointing.

Boardgames, and especially wargames, don’t lend themselves to easy analysis, almost entirely for the reason that in order to have any intelligent comments to make, you really have to play them. Which isn’t any different from a video game. But unless the game is specifically designed as a solitaire game, I feel you really have to play them against someone else. That takes a lot more time than just sitting down at the computer and playing 60 consecutive hours of Bloodborne. This disrupts the traditional flow of game information because as quickly as we move on from one game to the next, really sitting down to play and appreciate a game takes longer than the particular window of attention a game might be afforded by the public before it moves on to something else. So you’re stuck making videos in the short time those videos are relevant to much of your intended audience. And that leaves you with just about enough time to describe how the game works, and whether you like the idea of how it works. Balance? Please.

I did some written game analyses a few years ago in which I tried to incorporate gameplay with historical and systems analysis, but always butted up against the fact that they lacked the “how it really is-edness” that can only come from playing the game, or at least seeing it played. That’s the missing element I was hoping video could provide. So I decided to make my own videos. And I quickly found out just how hard this is to do, and gained a new appreciation for those who are able to produce videos of any sort and get them posted for other people’s enjoyment.

If you’ve watched any of my previous videos, you’ll know that my primary goal is to look at game design through the lens of history. And when it comes to the history of the ancient world, I don’t personally know anyone who is more knowledgeable than my longtime friend and colleague Troy Goodfellow of Flash of Steel and Three Moves Ahead. Troy and I talked last year about a way we could collaborate on a project about ancient warfare, and came up with the idea of looking at how different ancient battles are portrayed in wargames. We started out with a list of Marathon, Gaugamela, and Pharsalus. Troy wrote up a great framework to start from.

Marathon (490 BCE, Athens vs Persia): The Problem of Information

A small Persian force lands on the beach of Marathon, northeast of Athens. Pleas for assistance from Sparta fall on deaf ears and the Athenian citizen hoplites must march out to face a larger force. The Greek victory is seen variously as a triumph of citizen armies over levies, Western democracy over Eastern despotism, and heavy organized infantry over mass untrained missile armies.

The battle is best known from the account of Herodotus, but his description doesn’t make a lot of a sense. Could hoplites really charge downhill for a mile? Where were the Persian horses he describes as being near the battle, but not in the battle? – this was a decisive weapon for the Persian military. Historians and game designers have to wrestle with what they know about Marathon, the physical and tactical limitations of ancient armies.

Gaugamela (331 BCE, Macedon vs Persia): The Problem of Command

After routing one army at Granicus and destroying another at Issus, Alexander the Great faces his third and largest Persian army at Gaugamela, a plain that King Darius III had ordered flattened so he could stretch out a long and deep line of soldiers, allegedly numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Alexander’s cavalry charge on the right wing shatters the Persian left, but a lagging Macedonian phalanx opens a gap in his lines that the Persians take advantage of, threatening his camp. Awareness of this problem on a distant wing and his rapid response to it secures not just a decisive victory, but the end of the Achaemenid empire.

So how did Alexander know what was happening? Why were the Persians so unable to simply overwhelm the Macedonians with huge odds? How do game designers cope with the widely varying numbers of the Persian force and how do choices about command and frontage systems dictate the “proper” size of the Persian foe?

Pharsalus (48 BCE. Caesar’s Rebels vs Pompey’s Loyalists): The Problem of History

In a first hand demonstration of why generals should never let the Senate travel with them, Pompey the Great is goaded into fighting a battle he can easily avoid. Preferring to starve a Caesarian army that he can easily deprive of forage with his cavalry superiority, the Roman Senate pushes for a quicker resolution, thinking that if Caesar is truly done for, best to finish him before he can get reinforcements from Italy. Pompey gambles everything on a solid strategy of placing all of his cavalry on one wing, which will then sweep around and overwhelm the outnumbered Caesarian legions. Pompey needs to avoid his own infantry coming to blows, since he knows his raw Syrian and Greek recruits have little change, no matter their number. Caesar hides a few cohort of elite troops behind his own cavalry where they surprise the advancing Pompeyan horse and drive it from the field. Caesar’s army charges and the Senatorial force is routed.

The problem for game designers is that both sides already know the Caesarian infantry is there. This tactic worked because it was a surprise. Also, Pompey refused to let his infantry charge the Caesarian infantry – losing any momentum. Models of this battle have to either overrate the Caesarian skill level to give them a chance against an unsurprised, aggressive Pompey or accept that Caesar was simply lucky to get away with fooling one of the greatest soldiers of his age.

In response, I came up with the following list of games:

SPI’s Phalanx (1971): includes Marathon and Arbela** scenarios
AH’s Alexander (1974): Arbela
GDW’s Pharsalus: Clash of Legions (1977)
GMT’s Great Battles of Alexander (1991): Marathon and Arbela scenarios (from the Deluxe version 2015 reprint)
Decision Games’ Four Battles of the Ancient World (1992): Arbela and Pharsalus are two of the four (same system used below in S&T’s Marathon)
GMT’s Great Battles of Caesar (1994): Pharsalus scenario
Decision Games’ Battles of the Ancient World: Marathon and Granicus (2003) [magazine game from Strategy & Tactics – uses Battles of the Ancient World system]
GMT’s Command & Conquer series: whatever this has for scenarios

We decided to play them against each other and discuss them, and make a video out of it. Troy would come to visit for a few days, and we’d immerse ourselves in wargaming.

He did, and we did, and we quickly realized we had no chance of playing 15 games of anything, or even learning all the rules. We regrouped, and chose Gaugamela as the most important battle with the most varied game list, and narrowed the list to five different games.

And then we played them all. It took five days.

Afterward, I was left with a ton of video and audio, and a long editing job. This is the first video in that series. There will be four more, for which all the video has been shot, and is sitting on my hard drive, waiting for Premiere-ification. But more than anything, this is the next step in how I envision video game design discussion developing. I’m lucky that in this project I have as erudite a partner as I could hope for, who also has a deep love for and knowledge of gaming. I’d like to take this kind of discussion further, and get the designers themselves involved. Technology has opened the door to a new critical discussion of wargames, and I’m eager to participate.

*credit to @andrewdoull


21 Responses to “My kingdom for a phalanx”

  1. I’ll have to remember “To be honest, I don’t know that I necessarily did lose. Of course, by the rules of the game I did.” for my future boardgaming troubles.

    Posted by Jason McCullough | April 6, 2016, 2:15 pm
  2. Bruce, Troy – excellent video – loved the historical intro, the playthrough and the critical discussion. It’s the sort of “full package” for people interested in historical wargames. It certainly brings to life all aspects of the hobby, so much more than your average dry screenshot and blurb AAR’s, or even the more popular multi-part “Let’s Play” videos – with “I did this, I did that” but with no real context or interesting critique involved (and I’m guilty of all of these).

    Looking forward to the other four game sessions in the series.

    I reckon by the end of the series, I might have peiced together Bruce’s complete book collection from the shelving backdrops 🙂

    Top stuff fellas. And you’ve even got Tom snipping the corners off his chits – well done!

    Also, weird coincidence of different interest realms clashing together – Andrew Doull is a big personality in the roguelike/procedural generation world, as well as stepping into the boardgame arena.. and I’ve followed him on Roguelike Radio and his blog Ascii Dreams – and lo and behold, here he is questioning the same way we enjoy the hobby in today’s “new media” revolution! Small World… etc..

    All the best fellas..


    Posted by Ian Bowes | April 6, 2016, 2:48 pm
    • Glad you liked it – I think people like you are the exact target audience. I was talking with someone who was suggesting ways to make these things more “accessible” and my response was that given the choice of having 100 or 1000 people interested in the video, I’d rather get 100 people who *really* liked it than a bunch more who just mildly enjoyed it.

      As far as the books, piecing together the ones you’ve seen wouldn’t include any of the books on the other two bookshelves in the room (behind Troy and to his left in the video), the bookshelf in the living room, the bookshelves in the master bedroom, or any of the books upstairs. So you’d still have to do some detective work!

      Posted by Bruce Geryk | April 7, 2016, 7:09 am
    • “From Plato to NATO” has gone onto my Amazon wishlist!

      Really enjoyed the editing in this. It cannot have been easy to condense several hours of Troy and Bruce staring at a board into a dynamic struggle – but that’s what the final result felt like. Good job.

      Posted by Sam | April 7, 2016, 9:00 am
      • Yeah, perhaps we could have a future video touring the bookshelves picking out favourites and essential reads. I spent a fair amount of the video with my head turned sideways trying to read titles…

        Posted by djc | April 8, 2016, 2:38 pm
  3. Very well done, gentlemen!
    Definitely looking forward to future replays and commentary.

    Posted by Dave | April 6, 2016, 10:45 pm
  4. At last, in an age of generalized starvation, real food for the wargamer’s brain

    Posted by Serge Bettencourt | April 7, 2016, 1:39 am
  5. Thanks for the great video, Bruce and Troy! It was very nice to see how the game plays in practise and to hear your thoughts on it throughout. I really appreciate the effort you’ve put into the production! It’s very worthwhile work you gents are doing.

    Posted by Jarmo | April 7, 2016, 2:22 pm
  6. That was great and I’m looking forward to the next videos. Spelk pretty much said what I wanted to say (but better).

    I suspect editing the footage of the game you played might have been a bit of a pain but that really made the video for me. I felt I got a sense of how the game played and how your game went.

    “From Plato to NATO” also stood out to me.

    Posted by Roke | April 7, 2016, 8:28 pm
  7. Wow, that was fantastic. On some world, in some universe, within some dimension, there is a cable channel dedicated to consims 24/7. On this channel this video is what Game of Thrones is in our world. It’s not just TV, it’s Bruce and Troy.

    One thing that really give the video an air of professionalism were the graphical overlays. I’m curious about the tech, what was the software package you used to create it?

    Posted by Scott R. Krol | April 7, 2016, 11:47 pm
  8. It seems improbable that generals would let an army operate as described in this game.

    While the scrum looks okay and the result plausible, the battle sure didn’t play out sensibly nor look like much fun to play.

    This kind of gaming should help suss out how armies worked.

    Thanks for playing this game so we won’t have to!

    Hopefully, you’ll have more fun with future games in this series.

    I hope you take a look at command mechanics as a future series. They have been one of the most interesting ways that battle level wargames have evolved from the 70s.

    Posted by Steven Davis | April 8, 2016, 12:56 pm
  9. Great video Bruce. i’d love to see more. I didn’t realise Troy played hex n counters for some reason I had him down as a PC only guy, now i see he is Pyrrhus reborn.

    Posted by Simon | April 9, 2016, 5:49 pm
  10. Great video. Fascinating to watch.

    However this intro dialog with camera switching felt forced. Did you really have to arrange it this way, especially with you’re being able to talk face to face later?

    Posted by ilitarist | April 10, 2016, 1:36 am
    • The reason we did the back-and-forth opening was that our original sit-down table talk segment didn’t work out, so we needed a replacement. It was actually done after the rest of the video footage was recorded. I agree it wasn’t optimal, but we had no choice. I’m learning more and more about this whole video thing as I do it.

      Posted by Bruce Geryk | April 13, 2016, 6:43 am
  11. Excellent video! Just the right amount of game play to explanation. My thanks for playing, but *especial* thanks for the editing. This is truly a labour of love, and very much appreciated.

    p.s. Ever since Bruce made his comment about a hypothetical game where you only had the leader’s view of the battle and probably only a few in-battle decisions to be made, I’ve been thinking how you would model it.

    Each unit would also only have a local view (+ orders) to decide what it would do, etc.

    Decided it would help to have a Ph.D. in ancient warfare, but still can’t stop designing in my head. (How did ancient leaders get information and send orders? What sort of orders did units receive? What happened when you hit a phalanx at a 45% angle? etc., etc.)

    The interesting thing would be you would probably only truly understand what happened in the battle after the game was over, and you could replay the whole thing in bird’s eye view. Not a luxury the real leaders had.

    Anyway, thanks again.

    Posted by Tom West | April 10, 2016, 11:44 am
  12. Great idea for a series, I’m looking forward to see how some of the other game systems deal with the battle’s issues; hopefully a little more sensibly than Phalanx did. From the video it almost appeared that the optimal set-up for the Persians would be to encase Darius inside a circle of his troops and wait for Alexander’s force to wear itself out trying to get inside. Sorry y’all won’t be getting to Marathon, which as you noted poses some interesting historical questions as well. I picked up Hoplite a while back to play around with their Marathon scenario, but to my shame I haven’t as yet opened the game up.

    Posted by Kevin | April 10, 2016, 8:29 pm
  13. Oh man, this right here is the good stuff. Keep ’em coming!

    Posted by Chris | April 12, 2016, 6:07 pm
  14. Great videos.
    It’s a little disconcerting at first to see yours and Troy’s real faces, after having imagined a face during many hours of podcasts, but once one gets past that you can find some intriguing details into a nebulous subset of the hobby. Nebulous because I’ve only ever played “beer & pretzel” style games like Battletech or Flames of War, not these chit-laden historical wargames.

    Posted by Paul Brown | April 14, 2016, 7:24 pm


  1. […] of a historical battle. One of my first games was the Battle of Arbela (also known as Guagemela), recently covered on Bruce Geryk’s and Troy Goodfellows video analysis. It was interesting to see how the game laid out the units and dealt with some of the historical […]

  2. […] (Wargame_[space]) My kingdom for a phalanx — “Boardgames, and especially wargames, don’t lend themselves to easy analysis, […]

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