Sunday, August 29, 2010

Blocks of War I: Hellenes by GMT

In a recent high level of activity, I played a number of different block games. For the purpose of this series of articles, I am going to stretch the definition a bit and include the most excellent Richard Borg title "C&C:A", but this first entry, Hellenes from GMT is a classic block game in the most perfect tradition of blending the Columbia Games heritage with GMT's added goodness.
Hellenes - Sparta in Red, Athens in Blue

Going back to Hammer of the Scots, and some titles from before, Columbia has been blending the great idea of their block games (which feature 1-sided wooden blocks for units, allowing for great fog-of-war; and the blocks rotate showing stepwise reduction in combat unit strengths) with the more modern ideas of card-activation in a wargame.

I don't know for sure (and I bet there are half a dozen forum articles and geeklists at Board Game Geek on the topic) but I think that the first of the card-driven designs may have been Hannibal and Successors both from Avalon Hill, but these were quickly improved and followed up by For the People, Paths of Glory and Wilderness War from GMT. With the design for Hammer of the Scots, Columbia expanded the idea to separate the unit activation cards from event cards. Each round a player picks one, and it gives either a number of activations (for units or groups of units), or an event. This keeps the game always fresh and adds a lot to replay value. The GMT idea for the cards had three things on each card - unit activations, events, or replenishment - and when a card was picked, the player then had to choose which they wanted. The cards were balanced, so that the really good activation cards usually had the good events, and so on, so that the decisions were tough and required some decent thought and planning. Elements that make for a great game, in my book.  By the way, see the homemade map for Hammer of the Scots, by DK Kemler (as posted on Board Game Geek)- it is beautiful!

Homemade map for Hammer of the Scots
The recent game Hellenes from 2009 takes the Columbia idea of blocks with hidden values, and rolling for combat based on a two-value combat rating. The first value is a letter (in this case, from A to F) that gives the basic "initiative" value of the fighting - so that all A units fight before all B units and so on. Then there is a numerical value (usually from 1 to 3) which gives the target number for scoring a hit. Roll 1d6 for the strength (called the Combat Value, or CV) of the block (which ranges from 1 to 4, based on the current strength of the unit), and each dice that is equal or less to the "hit" number scores a hit on the enemy. An equal range at the top of the dice span means an enemy unit is routed. There are specifics about which units take the hits first, and who routs first, etc. Simple, but elegant, and gives great results with some appreciable depth. So far, this is classic Columbia Games (although I don't recall seeing the to-rout capability in older designs). But GMT adds rules for naval transports (there are, not surprising in a game on the Peloponnesian War, lots of naval units), as well as rules for sieges, pillaging, and so on - to capture the feel of the city states going into rebellion, and being besieged (all from Thucydides - great stuff). And with the activation cards all having an event, the goodness from GMT makes its way in.

There is a 2007 Columbia design on the same topic - Athens & Sparta, which appears to be a little bit simpler, and can cover the entire war in one sitting (whereas the more detailed Hellenes covers scenarios of the war in a single sitting), but it is a small matter of difference about which card system you prefer. Both have their strengths, and both (to me anyway) are appealing.

On Thursday, August 26, Wayne and I played a game at the weekly ODMS meetup, and he took Athens while I became a Spartan general for the evening. The game was great, and although I won, I believe it was due to a fluke in my exploiting the economic engine of the game a turn before Wayne was prepared for it. We have scheduled a rematch, and shall see how it goes. This time I think there will be a lot more fighting over the point-value-rich colony city states. It, like the original war, should be glorious!

On a side note, I would like to put out an endorsement for two histories on the Peloponnesian War - the first from Donald Kagan (The Peloponnesian War) (a few years older, but quite excellent), and the second from Victor Davis Hanson (A War Like No Other).

See you soon - Chuck

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