Rough at Raphia

Chris Harding and I recently tried GDWs venerable The Battle of Raphia, published in 1977. ¬†One of GDW’s 120 Series (in theory that’s how many minutes a game in this series would take to play), this one actually takes less than the advertised time. Really, you should be able to get through a game in a bit over an hour.

Raphia was an enormous engagement (at what is today Rafah in southern Gaza) between Ptolemy IV of Egypt and Antiochus III, the reigning Seleucid monarch. Both sides fielded over 60 000 infantry, more than 5 000 cavalry and many elephants. A victory for Ptolemy, the battle was notable partly because Ptolemy trained a native Egyptian phalanx which took part alongside their Macedonian and Greek overlords.

The game has an ¬†interesting stacking mechanism where all units of the same type may stack together at beginning of the game. Units may then leave the stack, but may not re-enter. What his does is give you a sense of formations becoming increasingly brittle as the game progresses. In the rules as written, there are no limits as to numbers. There is errata listed on boardgame geek and at web grognards which limits stacking for phalanx units to five per hex. There’s no indication as to whether this is /was ‘official’ or not, so we played with the rules as written.

The game is then played over 12 turns. Well, really six, as each ‘turn’ is a single player turn. Both sides dice for initiative, high roller goes first. One player moves, then fights, then it’s a new turn. Phalanx units ‘face’ their front 2 hexes, all others have all-round facing. Phalanxes must move into one of their front hexes. They also have the option to pivot one hex vertex at the cost of all their movement points. So you have to think carefully when you set up because it’s hard to correct once battle’s joined.

Units must stop when they reach a unit’s front hex. Combat is voluntary. The top unit(s) in a hex fight, with additional units in the stack adding +1 to the stack’s combat strength. result are some combination of morale check or unit elimination.

It all sounds simple, and it is. Morale is handed nicely. The combat results table only has losses for the defending unit, which doesn’t seem right, and seems to encourage reckless assaults. BUT if a stack attacks at a numerical disadvantage, units attacking must take a morale test, and failure causes the testing unit(s) to rout. So you still need to choose your attacks carefully.

There are also some nice touches of chrome, particularly with the elephants. Elephants rout in random directions, and cause morale tests for each stack that they pass through. They can be decisive, but you need to make sure they are not likely to cause your own troops too much harm. Another is the handling of the Egyptian phalangites, which must dice for morle when they first go into combat. They may either prove to be the worst troops on the board (being new recruits), or the toughest (defending their homeland),

There are some problems though. The rules are the usual GDW full-of-holes fare. It took two experienced gamers a while to figure out whether routing units keep retreating in the movement phase (which they do). More serious is game balance. Historically Ptolemy carried the day. Each infantry units has a number of spear illustrations (phalanxes 3, hypaspists 2, peltasts 1). The side with the greatest number of good order spear units on the board at the end of the game wins. Now, Ptolemy starts with 122 spears, Antiochus with 92. Cavalry and elephants don’t count at all in calculating victory. This is where Antiochus has a clear advantage, and if the Seleucid player is to win this advantage needs to be pressed home. I suspect that usually this won’t be enough.

In our game, I took the Seleucids and set up two big phalanxes with my best units on top to try overpowering Chris’s phalanxes, which had fewer units but covered more territory. I anchored my elephants on the seaward flank and my cavalry were all posed on the other, with my other infantry covering the gap between the phalanx and cavalry. My cavalry initially drove his off, but made little impression on his phalanx, though it was usually hitting its flank. My elephants were also relatively ineffective. Nevertheless, the final total was 103 Chris and 88 for me. Certainly a favourable casualty count, but not enough to win.

The lack of cavalry effectiveness points to another beef I have. different units are more effective against some types than others. Few are effective against a phalanx, which is right, if they are attacking it head-on. If it’s hit from the flank it should be in serious trouble. Unfortunately there are no¬†favorable¬†modifiers for hitting a flank (except for elephants, which can’t attack a phalanx except in the flank).

I’m not really sure that the stacking rules quite work, and the errata limits of 5 units in a phalanx certainly sounds sensible. Playing with the rues as written, I think the sensible thing for both sides is to have their most powerful phalanx unit heading one phalanx each. This would give Ptolemy four phalanxes versus two for the Seleucids.

The game also needs some work on balance. I don’t think that the Seleucid cavalry is generally going to cause enough mayhem to tip the balance. The designer recognises this and gives players the option to forego the 4 powerful Egyptian units (not all scholars believe that these were present). I think that giving units a positive modifier for flank attacks would be a better solution though.

With those caveats I quite enjoyed it. There are a lot of variants on boardgame geek for it that may be worth trying. Charles Vasey also nicked bits of it for his Flodden game which I’m very keen to try (if anyone has a copy they’d like to sell please let me know…). At worst, you could probably get through two games in an evening, so you can just swap sides. It’s aged rather well over its 30+ years.