Prufrock's Wargaming Blog

Prufrock's Wargaming Blog

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Quick review: Phil Sabin's PHALANX

The other day I had a quick try out of Phil Sabin's early set of ancient rules, PHALANX. They originally appeared in Slingshot as diceless rules for historical battles, but Phil has made a simplified version available on his Lost Battles yahoo group as a free download.

The game is played on a hex grid, nine deep and eleven wide (so you can use a Commands & Colors board, for example). Each side has a baggage base and ten fighting units - seven of hoplites, one of peltasts, and two of cavalry. One hoplite unit contains a general.

Spartans and Thebans!

Units move either one or two hexes depending on their type, and there are some neat little 'Sabinisms' to give unit classes their own character while keeping rules to a minimum (the rules are in fact just one page long).

It's an IGO-UGO game, and deployment (in another familiar Sabinism) is included in the play, with both sides deploying onto the field from their respective baggage bases.

First turn: both sides commence deployment.


There is no luck in the game except in choosing which side goes first. Combat is won by ganging up attacking units on the enemy, so that two attackers will rout peltasts or cavalry, three attackers will rout hoplites, and four attackers will rout a general's unit. The general's unit itself counts as two attackers when on the offense.

Jockeying for position.


When a side finishes its turn and finds itself with four or more of its own units routed, the game is over, and both sides score points based upon how many units were routed during the game.

As you can imagine, with IGO-UGO movement and diceless combat, the game is all about carefully manoeuvring units into position to defeat the enemy before the enemy can defeat you. It's more like chess with figures than it's like, say, DBA.

Three units of Theban hoplites attack the exposed Spartan allies (and brace themselves for the counterattack).


It does not work very well as a solo game (for obvious reasons!) but I think it would be quite good against an opponent. I imagine playing a match over two games to allow both players to have a turn moving first and tallying up the total points scored to decide the victor would be nice way to spend an hour or two with a wargaming buddy.

There are some ideas for optional rules on the Yahoo group, and a few others suggest themselves already. Secret deployment would be one obvious tweak, as would some kind of initiative challenge system to potentially change the turn order during the game.

It would be good to look at the historical battle scenarios too, but I'd need to get hold of the Golden Years of Slingshot DVD first to access the original articles, and even then I'm not sure if it will have everything - the rules may well have been included with Slingshot as a separate booklet. I can probably find that out from Phil himself at some point and update this review with that information EDIT: Yes, it has been confirmed that the Slingshot DVD does contain the necessary rules and scenarios.


(Relevant Slingshot issues w. page numbers.)


Anyway, if you have a hex grid mat (or board) and some appropriate figures (or counters), you might like to try it out. It's simple to learn, and the price is certainly right!


23 comments:

  1. Not always easy to play solo games...but these battlelines look great, no doubt!

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    1. Yes, I don't quite have the temperament to do 'deterministic' games solo, but I think a few work-arounds could be found if I tried hard enough :)

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  2. Interesting, particulary being a hexed game, but I am not a huge fan of ganging up mechanics in pre-mechanised hex games and I do like my dice - so is there anything left in the rules for me :-)

    I am guessing that once you put a gap in the enemy line, then they themselves have a reduced capacity to gang up, which I suppose is quite clever.

    You have had such good value from the Sabin Lost Battles rules, is there a noticable lineage between the two?

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    1. Like you Norm, I tend to prefer randomising elements in my games, but ganging up does seem to be a feature of hex-based rules (it's used a lot in C&C:A for example, by setting up to attack a hex with multiple units sequentially, or in Richard Berg rules by using two units against one simultaneously) so while I think his later rules are better, the 'ganging up' idea is not unique, but the way he implemented it probably is.

      Good question about the Phalanx - Lost Battles lineage. There is already a Sabin style in evidence here, and some of his later concepts are already detectable in nascent form. For instance you can see the emphasis on economy in the writing, you see simple rules mechanisms, neat little touches to create differences between unit types, the use of design to get historical effects (by which I mean that he likes his rules to gently guide players into using historical tactics, not to prescribe them), the constant tension between risk and reward in player actions, and the focus on historical battles (though not in the free download, ironically!).

      He hadn't yet developed the fresh/spent concept which he uses so much in later designs or the morale rules to better simulate an army's collapse. Nor is there the subtle interplay of rules mechanisms he later develops to differentiate levels of quality within troop types. There is no fighting value (his unique approach to a points system) yet either, so you can see that with PHALANX he is an interesting designer, but by the time he gets to Strategos/Lost Battles he is something special.

      He's an extraordinary designer and thinker, and although I'm an acolyte (and my view should be adjusted for obvious bias), when you see the pioneering work he's done in nudging wargaming into the academic mainstream (it's not there yet, but we will see his influence in the next ten to fifteen years, I think), we'll be looking back on him in years to come as a great wargame innovator and up there with the best.

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    2. Thanks Aaron, the two designs seem set apart by an evolutionary path, that of itself brings interest.

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  3. Sounds interesting Aaron, I have the Lost Battles book and bought Legion but haven't tried them out yet.

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    1. This one is several orders of magnitude less complicated than Legion and Lost Battles :)

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  4. I used to really enjoy Phalanx and played it to death back in the day. I extended it to Early and Late Roman battles and even tried an English Civil War variant.

    I had a game of it last year but found it poor in comparison to Commands and Colors.

    I used to play solo alright and recall being very bored playing it with a guy who agonised over every bloody move.

    Good post Aaron, very nice to see it again. I may have to give it another run out.

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    1. It's probably of its time, Paul! I am however ashamed to say that I'd probably be one of those very guys who'd agonise over every bloody move! :)

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  5. Oh, the scenarios were published with the rules in Wargames Illustrated. I've just had a look but I must have recycled that issue or I could have scanned it and emailed it to you. Maybe someone else could help out.

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    1. Thanks very much, Paul - I didn't realise it was in W.I. I'll see if they have any electronic copies for sale. The tip is much appreciated!

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  6. Aaron, I would really like to know what constitutes a "Sabinism."

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    1. In a general sense, it's a neat little resolution to a design problem, and it is recognisably his in some way. For an example in PHALANX, after moving, troops must be positioned so that they face a hex join. Thus they will have two possible frontal hexes which they can move into next turn, or attack into on the current turn. But peltasts have no facing, and so may move or attack in any direction. This peltasts exemption is, to my mind, a Sabinism. It neatly and economically differentiates peltasts from all other units, approximates their historical function, and only requires a single sentence in the rules.

      Another example, from Lost Battles, would be his 'key zone' concept, which encourages players to hold in a particular part of the field, because if they don't there will be a morale penalty. This, combined with the attack limit rule (ie, only a certain number of units can attack out of one zone in any turn) ensures that battle lines keep a historical shape, and you don't see, for example, someone having the cunning idea of concentrating all the heavy infantry in a flank zone and creating a 'super stack' which no one wants to come near. He doesn't say 'you can't create a superstack because it wouldn't be historical' but he makes a superstack unattractive through a combination of simple rules which serve multiple functions but fit together to have various desirable effects.

      It's a little hard to explain, but it's a 'Sabin' trait. No one else gets these kinds of effects in quite the same way (to my knowledge, at least).

      Hope that hasn't left you even more confused, Jonathan!

      Cheers,
      Aaron

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    2. Aaron, this was an excellent explanation and two good examples.

      What you term as "Sabinism" I might call a "Design for Effect" philosophy. In Design for Effect, a designer abstracts certain attributes or functions to model a more complex and less quantifiable/qualifiable process. The result is that the design results in a historically believable abstraction and produces the overall, desired effect. The more elegant these solutions, the better. It is often these little design nuances that only surface upon repeated playings of a game. The gamer at some point will realize that the designer really DID know what he was doing.

      Interesting topic.

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    3. Yes, I'd normally call it design for effect as well, but he does have his own signature touch, hence the personalisation!

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  7. Great looking game, Aaron. With your wonderful looking figures, any rule set will look good!

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    1. You're too kind, Dean. If they look good, it must be an accident of the light ;D

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  8. Interesting review; I always enjoy reading about rules and game mechanics. I think there is a lot to be said for Hoplite battles resembling chess games historically!

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    1. Glad to hear it, Peter. You might be right about the resemblance!

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  9. Hi Aaron,

    Yet another interesting post.

    Like another commentator here, Paul Liddle, I've played many games of Phalanx since it was first published in Slingshot). Mainly against my (then young, now adult) son. We used to take the game with us on holiday and run a 'Phalanx League'. He still insists that he's ahead on points. I differ.

    Phalanx gave us a lot of pleasure and the games were very absorbing to play. I agree with you that Phil Sabin is one of the most thoughtful and innovative game designers around, with an amazing eye for an elegant mechanism.

    I think I commented on one of your posts of a few years ago (but probably anonymously) that his game 'Eastern Front' (available as a free download from his webpage) is one of the best and most entertaining WW2 board games that I've ever played.

    You mentioned in your post that you would be interested in seeing the original scenarios. I think I have the whole article as a pdf somewhere (or in hard copy, so could scan it). Let me know if you'd like me to send you a copy.

    Best regards (and thanks for taking the trouble to publish a reliably entertaining blog),

    Chris

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    1. Many thanks, Chris. Yes, I still haven't printed out Eastern Front... (slaps self around the head). Thanks for reminding me to do so!

      I'm pleased to hear you enjoyed Phalanx so much, and especially so that it was with your son. I have the rules from Slingshot, but if you did happen to have the Wargames Illustrated article and could send it I would be very grateful as I would be interested in seeing if there are any changes. I will put a contact email address below this post just in case you want to get in touch.

      Many thanks again!
      Cheers,
      Aaron

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