Classic Reviews: Hector & Achilles from Phalanx Games

Brant Guillory, 9 July 2020

INTRODUCTION
Hector & Achilles is a card-based game of the Trojan War made by the Dutch game company Phalanx Games and distributed in the United States by Mayfair Games. The game simulates the battles between the Greeks and Trojans outside of the city of Troy. Scale, time, and most combat are abstracted into a challenging game of resource management with a tactical twist.

Although not a wargame of maneuver and battle, Hector & Achilles nevertheless offers gamers several interesting analytical challenges in a compact game. Managing army stacks, heroes, and deployment of key combatants combine into a multi-faceted battle that will challenge gamers to out-think their opponents in a battle lasting about 30 minutes.

On #TBT, we bring you the occasional classic article – an older review or analysis piece we wanted to rescue

 

PLOT & PRESENTATION

Anyone who doesn’t know about the Trojan War, raise your hand. Okay, you – the one guy in the back – read this next paragraph. Everyone else, skip ahead.

The central story behind the Trojan War begins with the prince of Troy, Paris, absconding with Helen, the wife of a Greek king Menelaus. Menelaus appealed to his brother Agamemnon to assist in retrieving Helen and avenging his honor. Agamemnon was all too happy to take a shot at conquering Troy, as such a war fit neatly into his plans for reigning over the entire known world. In the end, the people of Troy held tens of thousands of Greeks at bay for years, until the Greeks snuck into the city inside the Trojan Horse.

(As a side note, one of the funniest depictions of this was in The Simpsons, when Ned Flanders, as Priam, proudly proclaimed as he observed the Trojan Horse “When people get wood, they’ll think of Trojans!“)

There are different versions of the story, with varying degrees of divine intervention. The movie Troy, starring Brad Pitt as Achilles, was widely panned as an overbearing attempt at a great epic, but I actually found it to be an entertaining look at the Trojan War that focused on the personalities of the heroes throughout the conflict. The movie plays down the interventions of the Gods – such as Achilles’ invulnerability – in favor of a more “realistic” depiction of the heroes. Homer’s Iliad, the source from which virtually all Trojan War myths derive, portrays the Gods in a more active role.

The Hector & Achilles card game walks the fine line between generic “divine favor” and specific divine intervention on behalf of a specific hero or faction. Notably absent from the card game, however, is any mention of the Trojan Horse itself.

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Box contents

 

SETUP, GRAPHICS, AND DOCUMENTATION

Hector & Achilles comes in an attractive and sturdy box of an obnoxious orange color, with art that looks like it was taken straight off the side of a Grecian urn. The typography is a sharp-edged, Greek-inspired font that helps in establishing the feel of the game. The box is approximately 7.5 x 10.5 x 2, so it is an in-between size; not quite a bookcase game, but larger than Avalanche’s smaller games like Gazala or Defiant Russia.

Hector & Achilles is a card-based game, with each player given four stacks of combatants and a single separate stack of heroes. To keep them organized, these stacks are placed on boards during play. The boards are attractively illustrated, but not essential to gameplay. There are several tokens which are used throughout the game as well: Fate, Divine Favor, and Shame. There is also an attacker token that serves little purpose than to remind the players whose turn it is to play the role of the attacker; it changes hands based on the outcome of each battle.

The cards depict four types of soldiers: slingers, archers, peltasts, and hoplites. Each side has an identical number of each type of soldier. In fact, each deck is identical in composition, color, and artwork. The only visual cue that itís either Greek or Trojan is the back of the cards. There are six heroes per side as well, named after heroes from both sides of the Trojan War. The Greek heroes include Achilles, Agamemnon, and Odysseus, among others; the Trojans have Paris and Hector among theirs. Some of the names have spellings closer to their native languages – Ajax is Aias – but nothing that affects gameplay. Again, the hero cards sport identical artwork; the only differences are names and background colors.

CR-HA-Cards

The rules are found in a small book that runs 12 pages. The rules are clearly explained, and I didn’t notice any translation issues from their native Dutch. There is no reference card, however, so during the first game there is some flipping of pages as each turn progresses to ensure that no steps are missed or mis-played. The only time we had trouble with the rules was differentiating between the effects of a retreat from the battlefield and a defeat on the battlefield. After playing through each once or twice, though, it presented no difficulty. In truth, this is not a game that requires extensive documentation. (This review might be longer than the rulebook.)

 

MECHANICS

As noted in the introduction, this game focuses more on resource management than on tactical expertise. Each player’s cards are separated into four stacks. Three of these stacks are placed across the front of the board, and the fourth, or “home” stack (think of them as the force guarding the camp), is placed in the center behind them. The stack of heroes is placed off to the side of the home stack. Once a player exhausts their entire army (the front stacks), they lose and the game is over; alternatively, exhausting the home stack also costs a player the game, regardless of the front three stacks.
At the beginning of each turn, the attacker turns over one card from any of his four stacks and places it in front of the board. This card is called the “vanguard” and determines which stacks will be used to fight the battle. The cards are numbered 1-4, and correspond to the stacks of cards (the numbering diagram is in the rulebook). If the vanguard indicates that the battle will be fought with a stack which one of the players has exhausted, then that player uses the home stack to fight the battle.

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Setup

After placing the vanguard card, the attacker then draws a random Fate tile and places it between the two players. The Fate tiles have different colors around their four sides. These colors are key in determining the outcome of a battle. Therefore, the orientation of the tile, as placed by the attacker, can be very important. After the Fate tile is placed, the defender draws his vanguard from the appropriate stack, and places it face-up on the table.

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Trojan Start

Each player then draws four cards from the stack used for this battle, plus one hero card. Players alternate placing additional cards face-up in line next to the vanguard until one side retreats or all combatants are on the board. Before placing a card on the battlefield, players may choose to conduct one of several optional actions, such as deploying a hero, discarding a card to draw a new one, or playing a Divine Favor marker.

After each player has placed a new card on the battlefield, the player with the highest total value on the battlefield has the option to rotate the Fate tile 90 degrees. As the colors on the Fate tile are used to determine the outcome of combat, control of the fate tile can be very important.

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Both sides with Fate Tile in the middle

Once all combatants are committed, the two sides total the appropriate combat values; each card has a value from 1 to 4 and heroes range from 3 to 6. The higher total wins and the cards are reshuffled into the stack used for combat. The loser’s cards are discarded, though discarding a Divine Favor token may save a hero.

Divine Favor tokens are used to power-up units in combat. A Divine Favor token gives a unit +1 to its value when determining combat values. Each side starts with three Divine Favor tokens. If a unit with a token is lost in battle, then the token is lost as well. If a hero would be lost in battle, the player may discard a token to ‘rescue’ the hero.

Each card has one of six background colors. The colors are used to resolve combat. While a player may have five cards face-up on the battlefield, the only ones tallied to resolve combat are those whose color matches either the facing side of the Fate tile, or hero in-hand for this battle. A player could have three cards with a combat value of 4 on the table, but if they are the wrong color, they are useless for determining the outcome of the battle.
If a player realizes that the battle is lost, there is an option to retreat. A retreat costs a player all cards already on the table, but not the cards in-hand. However, when a player retreats, he gains a Shame token. Later in the game, if the player retreats again, he also discards one card for each Shame token. Thus, subsequent retreats can be quite costly.

Whenever one of the front three stacks is reduced to four cards or fewer after a battle, it is folded into the home stack. As noted above, expending all three front stacks ends the game.

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Face-off

 

GAMEPLAY

My first game with a friend took almost 45 minutes, but as already mentioned, that included several flips through the rulebook to make sure we didn’t miss any steps, or take an action out-of-place in the turn sequence. There was an extended read-through the first time we had a retreat, to make sure we didn’t confuse the retreat actions with defeat actions.

Managing cards becomes very important. Although slingers are mostly useless (they have a value of 1), discarding one to draw a new card reduces the size an army stack. Additionally, retreating early in a battle can be a very wise decision. Retreating with only one card in hand is often not worth the overall cost given the accumulation of shame tokens.

When playing cards onto the battlefield, players must pay keen attention to colors in multiple areas. The Fate token can be rotated to either provide an advantage to the player’s cards, or to deny one to any enemy. If a player manages their colors well, then they can set up the Fate tile so that the opponent may choose to rotate it to a color favoring him, while simultaneously rotating it to a color favoring the player.

When determining control of the Fate tile, players tally all cards on the table, not just the colors used for combat resolution. Thus players may find themselves playing high-value cards that will not be used in resolving combat, simply to maintain control of the Fate tile. Similarly, getting cards into play that match the color of the hero can be a priority, since these cards count when resolving combat, and an opponent cannot prevent their involvement the way he might by changing the facing of the Fate tile.

it is not so much a game about the Trojan War as it is a game about card management that happens to have Trojan War pictures and names

All of these color management strategies lead to a variety of strategies that can be used for bluffing. Play three straight green cards to try and bluff an opponent into a retreat, while holding a red hero? Or try to put many different colors on the board, to ensure that no matter what direction the fate tile faces, points are scored in the battle? Faced with a hand of many colors, discard to draw a new card, knowing that it costs a card from the stack?

Deploying heroes is another strategic decision. The color of a hero determines which cards are tallied in combat, but unless that hero is deployed into a line of cards in battle, his value isn’t included in the player’s total. Since heroes range in value from 3 to 6, these cards can easily turn the tide of a battle. When a hero is played into the line, he is played on top of another card. Thus a player must decide not only whether to play the hero, but also which card to remove from the battle. Sometimes, the decision is easy; covering a purple with a value of 1 with a red hero and no purple sides on the Fate tile is an easy choice. Other situations are trickier; covering a peltast with a value of 3 with a hero whose value is only a 4 just to get a color advantage? If a hero is deployed and the player loses the battle, the hero is discarded. If the hero is not deployed, but held in hand and revealed at the end of the battle, his value does not count toward the combat resolution, but he is reshuffled into the hero deck if the player loses, rather than being discarded.

My experience was that each stack is typically good for two battles. Thus, if I can win two battles against one of my opponent’s stacks, I can get into his home stack pretty quickly. Both my opponent and I found it easier to try and deplete our opponent’s home stack than to grind through all three front stacks. That said, there is a considerable element of chance in which stacks are selected for each battle.

 

REPLAY VALUE AND SOLITAIRE PLAY

New strategies and opportunities for bluffing seem to appear each game, giving Hector & Achilles considerable replay value. There are no scenarios or special setup rules. The only real difference between playing the Greeks or Trojans is that the Greeks attack first. Otherwise, the sides are balanced with no real advantages or disadvantages. Sides have identical decks to play with, so the choice of side may come down to personal preference, but it is mostly irrelevant.

Hector & Achilles is a two-player game through-and-through. There is no real way to adapt this to solitaire play. But since it is so easy to learn, a new player can be in the groove inside of 10 minutes, if guided by an experienced player.

 

SUMMARY

Hector & Achilles is a fun and nifty little card game that can be learned quickly and played during a 2-year-old’s naptime (trust me on this part). It is billed as a game of the Trojan War, but in truth the mechanics are generic enough that changing the art on the cards could completely alter the topics without changing one bit of the rules. Replacing the Greek and Trojan heroes with Civil War generals, and Divine Favor and Shame tokens with artillery support and morale tokens would turn Hector & Achilles into Lee & Grant with minimal effort. As such, it is not so much a game about the Trojan War as it is a game about card management that happens to have Trojan War pictures and names.

Hector & Achilles is designed for ages 10 and up, but a smart child down to age 8 could probably pick it up with some adult guidance. The box states that gameplay takes 30 minutes, but expect to add 15-20 the first time to make sure the rules are properly followed.

With no real difference between the two sides, much of the Trojan War flavor is lost. The Trojans are not defending behind high walls. The Greeks do not have a significant numerical advantage. And the Trojan Horse never wheels in the front gate, bringing about the doom of Troy. Someone wanting to wargame the Trojan War will be disappointed in this game. A gamer looking for something quick and dirty with subtle strategies that will take time to master will find Hector & Achilles fits the bill nicely. Its suitability for children is also a big plus. I would recommend this game to someone who enjoys analytical challenges but may not have the time to learn and play a traditional board wargame.

 


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Classic Reviews: Hector & Achilles from Phalanx Games

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