Wednesday 27 September 2023

Zulus! Isandlwana game at Colours 2023

Surprised not to have seen many reports of the Colours wargames show that happened in Newbury as usual earlier this month. Here's my own modest addition to the literature on this subject.

I can't say much about the show in general as I spent most of it helping to run our participation game. I talked to a couple of traders who said it had gone well for them, which is always good to hear. It was swelteringly hot and my impression was that it was really busy in the morning but that a lot of people faded, wilted and went home early when they got too hot and bothered to stay for the afternoon.

At last year's show we ran a nice obscure Hungary 1848 battle in 6mm. This time we went much more mainstream as Bruce laid on a game of Isandlwana using his gorgeous 28mm figures. Lots of people are familiar with this battle. Indeed, several of our guest players or spectators had actually visited the battlefield and knew it very well indeed, one even having had a relative perish there in 1879. That being so, it was particularly gratifying that one of our knowledgeable guests played the whole game through and said at the end, "that felt right".

This is a tribute to Bruce's skilful scenario design, as he adapted BBB (a ruleset geared to making battles of 100s of 1000s of men feasible as wargames on 6'x4' in an evening) to an action in which the smaller side had fewer than 2,000. BBB's elastic scale proved capable of shrinking down that far and still producing a very plausible game.

I thought I took a bunch of photos of his work but apparently not. I can only assume I was too busy chatting with people and helping to run the game. All I can offer you is a view of the racecourse, a couple of pics of the terrain being created and one of the British deployment, followed by a few reflections.

The view from our splendid vantage point. We were as overheated as greenhouse tomatoes, but it still beats the Distelfink room at Historicon. Maybe it captured the right feeling of southern Africa and all we needed was some itchy woollen clothing with tight high collars.


Step 1 of laying out the terrain was to put together Bruce's cunningly crafted polystyrene jigsaw for the hills.

Drape a cloth over the top, add the most prominent hilltops, sprinkle tiny gravel to help to define the slopes. Dongas (streams) and campsite will follow. Top left of pic is the range of hills the main Zulu force camped behind and attacked across. Isandlwana hill is the rocky brown one. Zulu right horn came from left edge of pic, left horn from the right edge. Our visiting expert complimented Bruce on his choice of green cloth: apparently, the movie 'Zulu Dawn' gives a false impression of a dry brown battlefield because it was filmed in the more convenient dry season, whereas the actual battle took place when the grass would have been lush and green.

A thin red line awaits the storm. Each pair of redcoats represents a company, with one figure being equivalent to 50-80 men. Bottom right, Lt Raw's men gallop frantically back to camp, having discovered the Zulu army. To see more and better pics of Bruce's figures in action (including Zulus this time), see my report of his Nyezane game.


It's a thin red line. Inevitably, the much-debated question came up of whether the massacre was due to ammunition problems (difficulty opening ammo boxes, etc), along with the alternative theory that it was because of weapons fouling up and misfiring. My own feeling after playing the game is that it didn't need any one major factor to make it happen. The problem is, unless the British deploy in a proper tight square (preferably protected by improvised obstacles and with guns at the corners) as they did later in the Sudan, eventually the Zulus will find a flank somewhere. Once they do, the line will get rolled up and swarmed and it's game over.

Popular vs Obscure. I love to explore the esoteric corners of history. There's a particular pleasure to be had from researching wars and recreating battles that few people have ever heard of, especially when (as so often) they present unusual tactical challenges; colourful, even bizarre incidents; and strong characters. Bringing such games to the tabletop, especially at shows, is in its way a service to our little community. However, there is also a lot to be said for the 'headline acts': Gettysburg, Waterloo, Balaclava - the famous battles that everybody knows and can enjoy identifying the terrain features and notable regiments as portrayed on our tables; the ones where the 'what-ifs' have been discussed at length and it can be particularly interesting to see how alternative plans play out in a game. Our previous more obscure games at shows have been appreciated and gone down well enough, but I have to say I think Isandlwana was the most popular yet, so maybe we will go for more such better-known battles in future.

28mm vs 6mm or 10mm. Another factor in the popularity of the Isandlwana game may have been the use of 28mm figures. We usually use 6mm or 10mm because these give the right mass effect for the massed battles we normally lay on. However, larger figures are easier to identify and more eye-catching at a show. Another conundrum to chew over for future games - or maybe we could go in the opposite direction and try 2mm next time!

Update: Bruce's scenarios for Isandlwana and Nyezane are both freely available in the "BBB Zulu Wars" folder in the BBB io group files. 



  1. Indeed, no one in a red coat gets out alive... I was interested, as the referee, in how in both games the British players deployed historically, massing their firepower against the Zulu Chest, while ignoring the lethal hook round the mountain of the Right Horn. Players are welcome to try the 'Form Square' strategy, although with only a weak battalion's worth of reliable troops, and cut off from their ammunition supply in the camp, good luck with that one...

    I also note that in the previous Nyezane scenario as well, the British players are utterly terrified of their Zulu opponents, and don't realise how much damage they could do if they kept their heads and controlled their volleys.

    I was frankly relieved that my various fudges in the terrain passed muster with those (unlike me) who'd actually been there. I will post the scenario (& more pics) soon.

    1. Presumably the 24th foot soldiers manning the rocket battery had did the IMI who escaped + also there was a Private Bickley of the 24th....but I take your point that no redcoats who were on the 'firing line' got out alive.

  2. As you mention Chris, the heat certainly played a part I'm sure in whether or not other gamers could tolerate the top floor to take photos. It took me 3 'trips' with breaks outside to cool down and catch some air, even for the quick snaps I took!

    1. Fortunately there was a bar so I was able to keep hydrated!


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