Friday, 19 April 2019

Review of Osprey's Men of Bronze

I was really excited to get my copy of Men of Bronze by Eric Farrington (EF) yesterday, on the day of release. These are small scale battle rules for hoplite warfare in the Archaic and Classical periods. I love rules designated for specific periods as they tend to bring a lot more flavour to the games. I was excited by these rules given the period in question – essentially, these rules allow players to field relatively small armies (five to eight units in a recommended game) to resolve differences between Greek poleis and their neighbours. Indeed, I started a new 10mm Classical project in anticipation.

However, this is a bit of a tricky review for me to write as I am both a wargamer, and a classicist; a game designer and an academic. Overwhelmingly I find myself appreciating the very neat game mechanics that EF has brought to the table, but I’m also distracted by my beardiness.

Lets get those distracting niggles out of the way first… Some of the grammar is rather clumsy and the manuscript would have benefited from further proofing in this regard.

EF repeatedly uses ‘phalanges’ as the plural form of phalanx. Phalanges are finger and toe bones. The plural of phalanx is phalanxes. Few rule sets are without issues like this – I’ve been mortified to find I’ve done similar things myself – but it’s still annoying.

EF speaks of Greek hoplites using a bronze sword and at one point refers to the period as a Bronze Age.

EF claims that Tarantines rather than Thessalians were the most famous Greek horsemen of the Archaic-Classical period, while later referring to Thessalians as skirmishing hill tribes.

On the topic of horses – the Athenian army list permits a huge amount of cavalry (up to three units). EF rightly points out that Athenians could field 1,000 cavalry, but omits to mention that those numbers were the total for the state, were rarely all deployed together, and still existed in a ratio of 10:1 hoplites to hippeis – not dissimilar proportions to many other states but less than most of their northern neighbours. The Theban army list has access to less cavalry than the Athenians, and if you want non-Theban Boiotians you are restricted further.

While griping about the army lists, EF seems to have drawn a diagonal line across the city of Thebes and ignored all Greek (and semi-Greek) states to the north or west. There is no Thessalian list allowing cavalry-heavy armies (you could use the Athenian list I suppose). There is no list to allow the psiloi/peltast-heavy armies of Aitolia, Arkanania, Phokis, or the Epeirote kingdoms. There are no Macedonians before the reforms of Philip II combining fine heavy cavalry, rubbish infantry, and a few hoplites. There are no lists for the Greeks states of Magna Graeca, where you might also find more peltasts and drilled infantry alongside hoplites and light cavalry. The army lists are the biggest disappointment, because all these forces took part in the Peloponnesian Wars at the heart of the game’s chronology.

There seems to be a point cost discrepancy between warband infantry and peltasts. The two unit types have similar stat lines, except that peltasts have more courage and are more disciplined. Peltasts can also throw javelins, move and shoot, evade and do a few other things. Peltasts only cost 4 points for a unit, but warbands cost 6…

I have noted these down as ‘distracting niggles’ because that is what they are – distractions. They distract from a good rule set with lots of flavour. So let us look at some of the good bits:

The rules are entirely scale and basing agnostic. That means that you can have individually based 28mm figures – as EF uses throughout the illustrations – or multi-based figures of any scale. There is no individual figure removal which is a huge plus in my books.

There are a really nice range of units available. There are four different grades of hoplites, a Philippic Macedonian pike phalanx, three grades of non-hoplite ‘infantry’, three types of shooty missile infantry and two grades of cavalry. That means that a player’s force is unlikely to be identical to their opponent’s.

Although I have grumbled about the army lists, there is a note on p.6 about house rules saying they are actively encouraged if the players see fit (and can agree). Ultimately that means that a player can field an army list that is not otherwise listed provided everyone is happy enough. EF has also noted this on a thread over at the Lead Adventures Forum – as well as mentioning that there might be a future free pdf produced with additional lists. This is certainly something I would encourage. In the interim, players not wanting to do piles of research themselves could just consult lists from other games like DBA (example lists from v2.2 below), DBM or L'Art de la Guerre.

The core rules of Men of Bronze are pretty straight forward – when you activate a unit it usually either moves, or shoots, or fights. This is not a game where each unit will do all three actions in a turn, which means that play moves quickly between players.

An innovation in the rules are ‘Arete points’. These are sort of like ‘leadership points’ in Dan Mersey’s Dux Bellorum, but a little more nuanced. The number of Arete points available to the army are directly linked to the number of units in an army. They can be spent to start a turn with the initiative, or to seize the initiative from your opponent mid-turn. They allow units with special traits to use those traits (i.e. form a phalanx, move and shoot, counter charge etc), as well as permitting any unit to conduct a double-distance charge where they can move and fight in the same turn. Unspent Arete points can be used to re-roll dice at any point in the game

Hoplites in a phalanx formation are tough but unmanoeuvrable. They can break into open order at any time, but it’ll cost an Arete point to get them back into formation again. In melee, there are rules to simulate the shoving match of the ‘othismos’ the scrum between rival phalanxes.

The inclusion of ‘Advanced Rules’ are where Men of Bronze really shine however. These are certainly not too complex that an experienced gamer wouldn’t incorporate all or some into the game from the offset. They include things like the death of unit commanders and missile troops being able to shoot over the heads of your own troops, but with a risk of stray arrows falling on their heads. There is a rule for phalanx drift, where phalanxes naturally drifted to the right during an advance. These are all really flavourful.

Another flavourful aspect are the 'Complications'. These are battlefield condition that may occur randomly such as one side making a dawn attack, receiving bad omens, having thirsty soldiers or having a herd of goats loose in the middle of the battlefield getting underfoot.

All in all, I think the mechanics of Men of Bronze are really nice and I can’t wait to get stuck in. The niggles are niggly, and take away from what could have been a splendid book, but they should not get in the way of a fun set of clever rules for gaming battles between Greeks, other Greeks, and their neighbours.


  1. Dedicated hoplite rules? Might have to look into this, as I close in on the core of my Spartans.

  2. Nice review and you have it spot on!

  3. Will get a set based on your review

  4. Nice review! Thanks for not mentioning my bad habit of random capitalization that tests the mettle of an editor!

    Agree about army lists being a bit boring and restrictive. I strongly encourage players to do what works and only use these as a guide. Army lists and "historical" scenaros are always a challenge.

  5. ...the manuscript would have benefited from further proofing... In one simple laconic phrase (ehm) you describe the biggest issue of Osprey Games.

  6. Quick question. Any ideas for resources to help me learn a bit more about pre/reform Macedonians and other Northern Greek military forces?

    1. Westlake's Thessaly volume is probably still the best single source on Thessaly. It focuses on the 4th century tyrannies, but summarises earlier periods too.

      Macedonia is a bit more all over the place. You could start with Thucydides, but I've just submitted something for consideration for publication that brings a lot more of the info together.

      For northwestern Greeks such as Aitolians and classical Epeirotes, Thucydides is again going to be your go to source.