Monday, January 23, 2006

Epaminondas, Hard to Pronounce but Innovative

In gaming circles there is a phenomenon called "Hobbying" that gets a great deal of use, but which the name does little to clue the outsider as to what exactly is being described. To be brief, in the gaming word a "hobbyist" is someone who likes to build, paint, and construct things. Games Workshop has made themselves into a large company indeed by combining strategy wargame behaviors with hobbyist tendencies. They do this by providing a fun rules sets for which you can buy unpainted miniatures and build terrain to host epic battles for your little armies (or as my wife would call them...little men). The game playing aspect of Warhammer is easy to define, it is the playing of the game against other players. They "hobbying" aspect comes in the assembly and painting of figures and the building of terrain. You can tell a true hobbyist when you see someone walk into an arts and crafts store with his significant other who says, "Oh my god...these foam eggs would make awesome Minarets! I can't wait to go home and get to work on these! Oh, oh, are those fake weeds?!"

Inside many a gamer is the person who likes to build things. The game player often desires to be the toy maker, and yet we as individuals often lack the talent to manufacture beautiful miniatures and terrain ourselves. But every now and then comes the opportunity for even the most artistically inept to build an exact wargame, and sometimes it is made necessary because purchasable sets to play are hard, if not impossible, to come by. Imagine if you will that the rules for Chess were readily available, but no one manufactured Chess sets. What would the committed gamer do? If he or she were a hobbyist the answer would be simple, build a set. The sculpture on the pieces may not be pretty, but it would be functional.

I mention this because I recently came upon discussion of a game entitled Epaminondas in the Oxford History of Board Games. The game has a confusing title one can imagine that the fanbase who find this a convenient name is limited to Victor Davis Hanson.

The game is named after Epaminondas of Thebes, who the game rules claim invented phalanx combat. According to Donald Kagan, Professor of Classics at Yale, that honor belongs to Pagondas who used the formation at the battle of Delium (424 BC):

On the right of the hoplite phalanx he massed the Theban contingent to the extraordinary depth of twenty-five, compared to the usual eight, while the hoplites from the other cities lined up as they liked, probably in the standard fashion. This is the first recorded use of the very deep wing in a hoplite phalanx, a tactic that would be used with devastating effect by Epaminondas of Thebes and Philip and Alexander of Macedon in the following century” (The Peloponnesian War 2003, 168).

Victor Davis Hanson discusses Epaminondas’ innovations to the phalanx in The Soul of Battle (1999):

From the battle of Delium (424) onward, the Thebans had always massed more deeply than the hoplite standard of eight shields…Epaminondas added a couple of vital ancillary tactical touches. The Theban mass and fighting elite would be placed on the left, not the right, of the Boeotian battle line, in order to smash the opposite elite royal right of the Spartan phalanx…In addition, specialized contingents…and the use of integrated cavalry tactics ensure that the Boeotians themselves could protect their new ponderous and unwieldy columns from enemy light-armed skirmishers and peltasts.

While Epaminondas is a difficult name to remember, at least with regard to spelling, the title aptly hints at the goals of the game. Epaminondas is what The Oxford History of Board Games describes as a Space/Attainment game. What this means is that the game is one in which the players "enter or move pieces upon a two-dimensional board with the aim of getting them into a specified pattern, configuration, or spacial position." In particular, the specific goal is to get one of one's pieces across the board into a corresponding position on the opponents end of the board. Essentially, the goal of the game is to move your pieces in such a way as one or more of your pieces ends up on your opponents end. If your opponent can neither eliminate this piece, or move an equal number of pieces onto your end of the board. The manner in which pieces are eliminated is where the name and theme of the game connect. You eliminate opposing pieces by moving larger phalanx's into your opponents existing phalanx. Like Epaminondas defeated the Spartans with his deeper phalanx, so to do you defeat your opponent's pieces.

As I mentioned, sets of this game are nigh impossible to come by, but if you are willing to do a little construction (and I mean very little), you can download the rules here and you can download a copy of a 14x12 grid here (right click and save to retrieve the file). The 14x12 grid is an unusual size, but one that can either be printed and glued to cardstock or constructed using some kind of router to carve a board for use. In addition, all that is necessary are two sets of different colored stones. Though I think I would someday like to see a copy of this game with beautifully carved hoplites facing off on a grid with topographic illustrations.

I haven't played many sessions of the game yet, but the premise is intriguing and may just be too complex for me to actually understand. Like with my first attempts to play Go, I might need someone to describe and demonstrate how to play the game as the written rules leave me needing to play it five or six times more before I actually think I understand the game.
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