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Author Topic: Phalanx vs. Legion on the table top  (Read 1116 times)

Offline vtsaogames

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Phalanx vs. Legion on the table top
« on: January 11, 2022, 07:42:17 PM »
In a previous century I played some games of phalanx vs. legion using the complex Wargames Research Ancient rules, 5th or 6th edition. The phalanx was 4 bases deep, the legion 2. The game consisted of the legionaries trying to rout the inferior troops supporting the phalanx before the massed pikes broke the legion in front of them. More recently, DBX games see two ranks of pikes facing one rank of blades, basically the same situation. The legion has a longer line and tries to roll up the shorter pike army flanks before the pikes break though.

I recently read Goldsworthy’s biography of Julius Caesar, which features numerous battles by the late Republican legions, precisely those who conquered the phalanx armies of Greece and Anatolia. The legions invariably formed up in three lines, 4 cohorts in the first line and 3 in each of the other two lines. The cohorts usually formed 4 ranks deep, sometimes 5 or 6. Pompey deployed his green infantry 10 deep against Caesar’s Gallic veterans at Pharsalus. The Roman army of this period relied on three waves of troops, while the phalanx army relied on the power of 16 ranks of pikemen in solid blocks.

A Roman legion deployed in three lines, a total of at least 12 ranks deep (4 ranks in each line). This would make a line slightly longer than an opposing phalanx of the same strength, but not anywhere where near twice as long. The Roman formation should be nimbler than the pikes, but not markedly shallower and longer.

I have not found a set of rules that rewards the Roman three lines. Most often seen is a single line with perhaps a smallish reserve behind, usually of cavalry. Those times I played rules other than Barker’s (WRG Ancients or DBM/DBA), Rome vs. phalanx armies weren’t available.

While the roll up the flanks vs. the hammer blow in the center makes for an exciting game, I don’t see how this reprsents actual combats between these armies. The legionary line wasn’t half as deep and twice as long. It was 12 or more ranks against 16. The phalanx had more problems if it became disordered by combat or terrain, but that is different from the long line/deep formation issue.

Perhaps some out there have played rules that handle this differently. Please enlighten me.
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Online Pattus Magnus

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Re: Phalanx vs. Legion on the table top
« Reply #1 on: January 11, 2022, 09:34:57 PM »
I was recently reading my copy of To The Strongest, and that set of rules definitely includes some careful thinking about the pike vs legion matchup. Take my comments with a grain of salt, as it has been a long time since I last played TTS, and I haven’t played a pike vs legion game using the rules.

The gist of it is that in TTS, pike units are represented as a ‘deep’ unit and are destroyed on the third time they are disordered in combat. The pike weapon’s special ability is that a non-pike opponent to the front does not get to strike back in combat if the pikes are in good order.

The legions are represented by ‘small’ units, which are destroyed when they are disordered once in combat. But, the legion will typically deploy 3 of those small units, one behind the other (unless the player decides to do something clever, like deploying on a wider frontage and in doing so abandons the triple line…). Legion units also have pila, which they can throw when entering combat, potentially disrupting the pike block (and opening up the possibility of striking back). In theory, the legion player may also be able to shift the small units in the rearmost line left or right to cover thin points in the battle line (in practice, that may leave another thin point, and depends on good activations, so easier said than done!)

It seems like in TTS games between pike armies and legion armies there is a complicated interaction between the two combat styles - they can absorb an equivalent total damage (assuming the legion player deploys in lines), but a lot depends on whether the pila create openings. And it will tend to produce a scrum along the line until one side loses a pike block or trio of legionary units and a hole open up. The legions should be more flexible for manoeuvring and bringing reserves into the line as well.
« Last Edit: January 11, 2022, 09:38:42 PM by Pattus Magnus »

Offline Melnibonean

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Re: Phalanx vs. Legion on the table top
« Reply #2 on: January 11, 2022, 11:30:17 PM »
I've also found that To The Strongest captures the Pike v's Legion aspect really well. To add to what Pattus Magnus said, there is a great mechanism for the Legion to "swap ranks" between the hastati and principe. You basically field them as a single regular sized unit instead of two small units but this single unit has the ability to "swap ranks" meaning that the unit will lose any disorder and regains its "one use pilum" ability. This adds a lot to the survivability of the legion.

Because I have my Romans organised into small units (2 x 40mm bases) and because of the use of the grid system in TTS, I actually deploy them in a quincunx formation. This looks good and doesn't affect their fighting ability because in TTS your opponent basically attacks the box created by the grid as opposed to the unit. Placing the triarii in the box behind give the whole deployment a neat triplex acies look. I simply move the pricipe up into line with the hastati to signify that the line swap has been done (because it's a one off manoeuvre that the unit can do once per game).

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Offline Arrigo

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Re: Phalanx vs. Legion on the table top
« Reply #3 on: January 12, 2022, 02:38:35 PM »
ahem.... the classic legion vs phalanx should involve the manipular legion (Scipio's times) rather than the cohortal legion deployed in 4-3-3 fashion of Caesar and later.  I think you have swapped periods...

The Manipular legion deploy essentially in 2 combat (Hastati and Princeps)  and one reserve (Triarii) lines. Now there is a bit of debate on the two first lines in battle. The critical point is pre-attle deployment, in the Maniples the two composing centuries were deployed in couples in depth leaving space in the formation. Then they were supposed to close the lines... but were they closing lines in their ranks (Hastati posterior centuries plugging the gaps in the Hastati line and so on) or the back line was advancing to close the gaps? The former is usually considered the correct answer, but at times the latter solution  has been expounded.

It is worth to note that toward Scipio himself explored different approaches in Spain and also at Zama.
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Offline Easy E

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Re: Phalanx vs. Legion on the table top
« Reply #4 on: January 12, 2022, 03:20:18 PM »
Yes, the two line approach in the classic checkerboard pattern is what I was thinking about as well.  Basically, how does a checkerboard, two-line formation fare against a single battle line of pikes.  The Triarri in an ideal world never even got to fight and acted more as a rearguard for everyone else running away!   

In a recent game of Greeks vs. Romans for Wars of the Republic, the key for the Roman victory was more about driving off the flank elements BEFORE engaging in the titular Pike vs. Legion battle, where the checkerboard was superior..... this time.  However, so much depends on when the units engage, who charges, terrain, security of the flanks, support units, etc. that nothing meaningful can really be said about Pike vs Legion.       

The entire debate is a bit.... academic as we really do not even know how ancient battles even worked at the most basic of levels much lesser the inner tactical workings of the various units.  We don't know if folks engaged all across the battle line at once, how long they fought for, did they withdraw after getting tired, etc.  There are still so many questions and interpretations of ancient battles, as players we just have to appeal to the one we like the look/play of best.  Good luck finding rules that you feel deliver the experience you want. 
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Online Pattus Magnus

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Re: Phalanx vs. Legion on the table top
« Reply #5 on: January 12, 2022, 03:41:05 PM »
That’s true about pike armies mainly being opponents to manipular armies. The main exception to that would be the earlier battles between post-Marian (cohort based) armies and the Kingdom of Pontus.

I think for war games rules representing either period, the main thing is to avoid rewarding Roman players who thin their line in order to send legionnaires to the flanks. There were reasons historical commanders didn’t routinely do that against pike armies (probably because they realized the thinned line wouldn’t hold long enough to make the flank attack viable). The other game mechanic needed is to represent the chance for pila barrages or terrain to disrupt the phalanx and give the legions a local advantage they can exploit.

I agree with the OP that many rules systems don’t do a great job reflecting the trade-offs a Roman player should face in games against a pike-based force (I think the phalanx had less tactical flexibility- that player has fewer options regarding how to use the pikes - that player’s decisions revolve more around what to do on the flanks with cavalry and the other supporting forces available).

Offline Jjonas

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Re: Phalanx vs. Legion on the table top
« Reply #6 on: January 16, 2022, 10:23:48 PM »
Legion Vs. Phalanx is good source for this discussion.
Myke Cole approaches the subject with new skepticism and enthusiasm.
He has some gaming background so some of that influences his descriptions.

As for the ephemeral triplex acies of Roman manipular legions, this has been a difficult thing to recreate in tabletop games- mostly because we understand it in theory but don't have enough real precision to understand how it worked in practice.

In most Legion vs. Macedonian phalanx battles the Phalanx side suffered awful mishaps that allowed overlapping Roman wings to surround and annihilate the phalanx engaged to the front. When the Macedonians were carefully generalled this did not happen and the Legion vs. Phalanx combat was prolonged and ultimately decided by elephants or cavalry defeating the Roman flanks.

The three line system works with maniples - but these were very small units 120 men or so and thus very easily moved about and easy to change order quickly. When you think of three lines of 20+ maniples to make one legion, its tough to get that look on the game table. My old system of Warhammer Ancients has a simple maniple replacement mechanism which works well in very large games (since in WAB units of 12 models are quite brittle, and even at that scale we are talking 300 legionaries plus 100 or so velites per legion). Other rules allowed the whole line of hastati and principes to fallback at once, that schematizes things when the figure scale is 1:50 or higher.

Generally on the table top we tend to accept the schematic methods. Allowing a swapping unit to charge in WAB gave it quite an enormous advantage, and this plus adding rank bonuses to leadership for maniple support made Romans desirous to maintain the manipular reserves and keep their line short. Still clever maneuvering of the veterans to the flanks often happened because these spear armed troops were the perfect solution to stop cavalry. In the real world it took exceptional leader charisma to get such moves to happen, as the institutional tactics of the legion made the idea of volunteering your triarii to leave your reserve probably needed a verbal command.

So, the answer is when games address the tactical benefits of support and relief, and the moral bonus of having the veterans reserve- these things keep the Romans from acting completely like gnats and dodgers.


Offline AdamPHayes

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Re: Phalanx vs. Legion on the table top
« Reply #7 on: January 26, 2022, 07:13:19 PM »
Archon 2 from the Piquet stable of rules gives the Romans some sneaky tricks which make fighting in Triplex Acies very worthwhile. Rather than getting caught up in the debated minutiae of manipular tactics, the rules allow all Roman and Allied infantry units to interpenetrate without penalty. Additionally if a unit in the front line of the formation is defeated, the Roman commander can substitute it with a unit from the next line back, as part of the combat resolution. It is quite dispiriting for a phalanx to win a melee only to have a new fresh unit appear in its path as if by magic!

The other choice for the Roman general is to retire the entire front line to the back of the formation where you can take your time rallying and reordering the units whilst their comrades carry on the fight. Rinse and repeat. An enemy  without the same reserves can find itself in a bad place being constantly faced by "new" fresh units...

Offline Erik

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Re: Phalanx vs. Legion on the table top
« Reply #8 on: January 27, 2022, 08:34:36 AM »
Warhammer Ancient Battles supplement Hannibal and the Punic Wars have some great rules (for that particular ruleset) to simulate the Roman manipular fighting style. Made according to the authors specifically to avoid single battle line Roman armies.
Other than that I would also recommend TtS.


Offline bigredbat

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Re: Phalanx vs. Legion on the table top
« Reply #9 on: January 27, 2022, 04:08:22 PM »
Interesting thread.

Originally we used to have "small" units in To the Strongest!, but around two years ago (since Pattus last played) I combined these into "deep" units called "Quincunx". A quincunx includes the hastati, principes and triarii of a legion (or perhaps of half a legion, depending on representative scale). A Roman player typically has four or so of these in a row with velites in front and cavalry on the wings.

The Roman player can attempt to withdraw the hastati of a quincunx, and then its principes, behind the triarii, which gives the possibility of rallies and replacement pila. It's also possible to detach the triarii, but this weakens the quincunx as a whole. It's quite a snazzy idea (if I say so myself  ;-) ) that has worked well to the satisfaction of most. The new rules are in the Ancient Army List eBook, against the Polybian army list and the Camillan list (which is subtly different, reflecting the Camillan principes being hasta-armed).

« Last Edit: January 27, 2022, 04:10:54 PM by bigredbat »

Offline SJWi

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Re: Phalanx vs. Legion on the table top
« Reply #10 on: January 27, 2022, 05:59:57 PM »
I can't comment on the WAB "Hannibal and the Punic Wars", but have tried the TTS "Quincunx" idea and found it quite a neat idea.

Offline Jjonas

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Re: Phalanx vs. Legion on the table top
« Reply #11 on: January 27, 2022, 07:26:13 PM »
"Warhammer Ancient Battles supplement Hannibal and the Punic Wars have some great rules (for that particular ruleset) to simulate the Roman manipular fighting style. Made according to the authors specifically to avoid single battle line Roman armies.
Other than that I would also recommend TtS."

Warhammer Ancient Battles supplement Hannibal and the Punic Wars really worked hard to represent the Roman relief and small units interactions. One needs a big game to see it work the best. TtS does very well too because the linear tactics are enforced by the grid, which makes flanking difficult. The WAB games often had a lot of clumping up in the middle as units could get turned around a bit too easily.

Offline jcspqr

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Re: Phalanx vs. Legion on the table top
« Reply #12 on: January 27, 2022, 08:39:02 PM »
My vote would be for WAB HAPW's supplement as well.  It did a good job of encouraging the Roman player to use small maniples and rely on the manipular triplex formation.  Other rules rely on abstractions of one form or another to reflect roman small unit capabilities.  HAPW actually rewarded you for using the actual small unit formations.


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